When I was at school I studied the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a couple of different forms – French playwright Jean Anouilh’s version and Ovid’s telling. It’s a love story of the highest order, in which Eurydice tragically dies and Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Even in the versions in which a narrator has tried to imbue the story with some kind of uplifting ending – such as Orpheus’s songs enchanting everyone forever – the tale is still incredibly melancholy. Thinking back, I wonder if my teachers were mad to give such material to fourteen-year-old girls.
And yet modern children’s literature is constantly eking out the darker corners of our lives – the shadowy parts. In the past year I’ve come across many picture books, young fiction and young adult fiction that all show children harsh realities – the horrific plight of refugees, bullies at school, death of close family members. Almost all of them end on a hopeful note in an attempt to show children resilience, forbearance perhaps, and that they are not alone in their tragedy.
When AF Harrold writes ‘serious’, he tends to reach into those dark corners, having dealt with loss in The Imaginary and bullying in The Song of Somewhere Else, amongst other things. He has described The Afterwards as the last of this triumvirate of books (not a trilogy – these are stand-alone titles) but they all link, in their collective other worldly, serious, atmospheric way. For it is the atmosphere they evoke almost more than the plot itself, which disturbs the soul.
The Afterwards is perhaps his darkest yet, melancholy in feel and quietly devastating. Ember and Ness are best friends – Ember lives with her father after her mother left a long time ago, and Ness lives next door. But then Ness dies (rather horrifically by falling off a swing and hitting her head – this is not a book for the faint-hearted child). Ember is left feeling lost and empty.
When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she decides she must bring Ness back with her. But the Afterworld is not going to let go of Ness so easily, and Ember finds that the demands made upon her will change how she thinks about things forever.
Any book dealing with the large topics of death, loss, memory and what happens after death is bound to address the darker side, but Harrold’s writing, even in its comic sphere, is full of atmosphere – and here it is dark indeed. The colours of the world are stripped away in the Afterworld – a metaphor used oft before – but here it really packs a punch. For not only has the colour been stripped away but also Ness’s energy, sapping slowly from her to leave her in a frightening, apathetic state – half the person she was, lacking her zest and charisma. An even more haunting premise is the other person that Ember comes across in the Afterworld – a frightening prospect that comes at the climax of the book, leaving Ember with an unbearable choice and the lingering feeling of sadness at mothers who die without seeing their children grow up. What’s more, there is a character in Ember’s real world who is willing to do something so dreadful that you wonder at Harrold’s daring at placing it at the heart of this novel.
This is a powerful book – written so matter-of-factly (and yet with the poise of a poet) that the magical realism of the Afterworld seems palpable and plausible; the characters so neatly drawn that they feel as if they are just around our own corner. But what haunts particularly is the unbearable feeling of loss and grief that permeates all the shadows of this book – even the grief over an animal.
Brief moments of comedic insight come in a wry style in dialogue between Ember and her father, but for the most part this is a deeply disturbing read. That’s not to say it isn’t troublingly good. It is. The story is always compelling, pushing the reader on in a relentless thrust of impatience to make everything right again, to make Ember happy again. And in the end, with a talking cat and the uplift of happy memories, things are, sort of, okay. But any children’s book that ends with a funeral needs to be read with an enormous amount of sensitivity.
This is a story about memory and loss and the power of love, the latter of which exudes with the illustrations drawn by Emily Gravett. At this point I must confess to only having seen an early proof with limited illustrations, but so far for me, they have provided the uplift – the handsome colour of real life – snapshots of Ember’s ordinary life, which both warms and chills once the reader realises what’s going to happen. The image of Ember’s Dad untying her shoelaces, the family photographs around the house, the wonder of friendship giggles over holiday stories, and the sure-fire shared look of best friends across a room. The couple of illustrations provided nearer the middle of the book are of course, darker, but there is a wonderful intimacy to them still – a poignancy and power that goes hand in hand with the text.
This is an extraordinary book, one that will stay in the memory, and one that should be widely read – but with caution. Its haunting quality may be contagious. You can buy it here.