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Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

A mother, her two children and a fire at their elite private school. It’s another stomach-churning premise from English writer Rosamund Lupton, following the bestselling missing-person drama Sister.

Afterwards is a curious mélange, part quasi-ghost story, part family drama and part suspense thriller. It works – sort of.

When the fire breaks out, 17-year-old student nurse Jenny is in the highly flammable art classroom at the top of the building. Grace, attending the school sports day in which her son Adam is competing, sees the flames and rushes into the building in search of her daughter. Both are badly injured.

That the fire was caused by arson is established, as is – in Grace’s mind, at least – a short-list of suspects. (Momentarily we will come to how Grace can be acting as private detective when she is comatose in a hospital bed.)

One is Donald White, the husband of Grace’s friend Maisie and father of Jenny’s schoolmate Rowena, who suffered burns to her hands while attempting to rescue Jenny. Another is Annette Jenks, the dippy new secretary who is found to have been careless about her upkeep of the school’s comprehensive security protocols.

Then there is the woman Annette replaced, Elizabeth Fisher, recently forced into retirement. Finally, there is Silas Hyman, a disgruntled ex-staff member whose circumstances scream motive and who Lupton dangles in front of her reader like a carrot for much of the novel’s 470 pages.

Silas was fired from his teaching position over a playground incident in which a child suffered two broken legs. Though we are never encouraged to believe that he was guilty of the negligence of which he was accused (and Lupton comes up with an extraordinary child-sociopath for an alibi), his messy marriage and the suggestion of an entanglement with Jenny consume much of Grace’s attention – even as we know she should be looking elsewhere.

Afterwards is a book in which the darkest things happen. The backstory of Silas Hyman’s sacking is savage, the tale the principal spins to parents to explain the departure of the much-loved secretary is downright cruel, and the climax is designed to leave you feeling a little less safe in the world.

But whether you find Afterwards absorbing or irritating will largely depend on your ability and inclination to suspend disbelief, for the plot trick that allows Lupton’s two principals, Grace and Jenny, to exercise omniscience despite being unconscious and immobile in hospital beds is their evolution into living ghosts. They can roam the halls of the hospital, eavesdrop on conversations and even venture outside in the company of their loved ones, who are unaware of their sub-spectral presence.

They sit in on the interrogations conducted by Grace’s policewoman sister-in-law and spy on those Grace has pinpointed as suspects, meeting periodically to review their findings. It’s not dissimilar in spirit and mission to Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and will seem preposterous to some, but Lupton’s empathy for her characters and engrossing narration of what becomes a search for justice is admirable.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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