After You’d Gone begins at the end: our protagonist Alice sees something nasty in the woodshed (as it were; it’s not really a woodshed) and shortly thereafter gets hit by a car (possibly on purpose) and lapses into a coma. The rest of the book goes circling and swooping around what happened and why and what it meant to Alice, exploring her past and her mother’s and her grandmother’s, shifting points of view and tenses every few pages. I know I complained recently about rapidly-shifting narrative focus. It’s disorienting here too, and there’s no reason to be changing tenses every two seconds, but I forgive Maggie O’Farrell because she makes me feel accepted and understood.
The end, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, happens first.
Not just that, but when I would begin to have a complaint about the way the plot was going, Maggie O’Farrell had already anticipated it and veered away from the danger zone. LIKE SHE WAS INSIDE MY HEAD. I read the end and thought, Well, that nasty thing in the woodshed is a bit anticlimactic and predictable, if the whole book’s building up to that revelation it’s going to be rather lame. But then the something nasty got revealed for the first time midway through the book and left me wondering what further revelations could be forthcoming. Each time I felt that a certain incident implied that the plot was going to move in an unsatisfactory direction, it swiftly proved otherwise.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I like to have the action of a book spoiled for me, but not the emotional moments, not the psychological motives that underpin the whole thing. I want to know that (I’m about to spoil Jane Eyre, and I’m warning you because Ana is always heaping fury upon blurb-writers who assume everyone knows the end to all the Classics) Jane and Mr. Rochester end up together, but I don’t want to know what leads Jane to ditch St. John and head back to Thornfield. To put it another way, I like to know the what and slowly find out the why, rather than getting all the whys before reaching the what. It is like having a black-and-white outline to start with, and slowly coloring it in with all different colors until, ta-da!, you have an entire picture.
After You’d Gone is just like that. She tells us the what from the beginning: Alice sees something bad, and steps in front of a car, and ends up in a coma. Events happen out of chronological order. They happen in a complicated, twisty, emotional order. You have to be giving the book your reasonably undivided attention, but as long as you do that, it’s very satisfying. Especially to me, skipper-arounder-in-books.
That’s it, only two? Surely there are more. Tell me if I missed yours!