After You'd Gone, by Maggie O'Farrell

Alice takes a train journey from London to Scotland to visit her family. But while she's at the station she sees something that shocks her so much that she gets on the next train home without leaving the station. Soon after she gets home, she is hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing, and ends up in a coma. While Alice is in hospital, we gradually learn of the events which led up to the accident - both in Alice's life and those of her family members.

This was a lovely book. The writing was really good, and I felt really close to Alice. In structure it reminded me a little bit of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, because the story jumped back and forth a bit arbitrarily between different times, as you learned more about Alice's mum, grandma, father etc.. But unlike that book, I had no trouble keeping track of who was who, and the whole thing fitted together really nicely.

The narrative switches between third person accounts of Alice's family, and first-person descriptions by Alice, some of which relate to her experience as she lies, unable to move, in her hospital bed. In fact it occurred to me that perhaps the whole thing is told by Alice, as she tries to fit together the story for herself. But that's certainly not made explicit.

One thing that isn't clear for most of the book is who the "You" of the title refers to - presumably it's Alice? But maybe not? I thought that was good.

One key part of Alice's past is her relationship with John, and we learn all about that as the book progresses. Along with quite a few other parts of the story, one thing I liked here was that there seemed to be quite a bit of incidental (and not so incidental) detail which either didn't seem crucial to the plot, or seemed a little bit implausible. But in fact, they were made to seem to real that they seemed to make the story all the more believable. For example, the issue of John's relationship with his strictly Jewish father - could that really happen? I'm not sure, but I believed it when I was reading the book.

If I had a criticism - and it would be a very minor one - it's that in a couple of places (near the start), it felt as if O'Farrell had tried a bit too hard to polish the writing: I think all good books have been through several re-writes, and part of the skill is that the reader can't tell, because the finished product flows so well. But on occasion it seemed that there were phrases that felt like they'd been honed and slotted in. But this was towards the start of the book - either she got better or I was just engrossed and didn't notice as the story progressed.

And, I learned what an axolotl is (when I saw a picture, it fitted exactly with the impression I'd had after reading the book).

Because it was a library book, I couldn't mark sections in that I liked, so I've only got a couple of page numbers to refer to as rather random examples of bits that struck me:

She wants to gobble up time, to rush through days and weeks and years with him, so they can do everything right now. But at the same time, she wants to freeze it: she knows enough about love to be aware of its double bind - that there's no love without pain, that you can't ever loves someone without that tinge of dread at how it might end
(shades of Green Coaster there) And another bit where she's describing someone in a chemistry laboratory - this took me right there
Ann curls her feet around the top rung of the stool...sun is slicing into the lab through the high-up windows. Because the windows are so widely spaced, the benches are alternately illuminated by this white, midday light: one bench in shade, the next in sunlight...basins with high-arched taps, orange rubber tubing running from gas taps to burners..

Since finishing the book, I've found myself thinking, a couple of times, "hmm, I know I've got something to look forward to, but I can't think what it is". And then realised, with a pang of disappointment, that I was thinking of this book, and that I've already finished it. So I'll probably read it again some day, and in the meantime will definitely read more by Maggie O'Farrell.

Completed : 06-Dev-2008

[nickoh] [2008 books] [books homepage]