After You'd Gone

After You'd Gone

4.1 38
by Maggie O'Farrell
     
 

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Alice Raikes takes a train from London to Scotland to visit her family, but when she gets there she witnesses something so shocking that she insists on returning to London immediately. A few hours later, Alice is lying in a coma after an accident that may or may not have been a suicide attempt. Alice's family gathers at her bedside and as they wait, argue, and

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Overview

Alice Raikes takes a train from London to Scotland to visit her family, but when she gets there she witnesses something so shocking that she insists on returning to London immediately. A few hours later, Alice is lying in a coma after an accident that may or may not have been a suicide attempt. Alice's family gathers at her bedside and as they wait, argue, and remember, long-buried tensions emerge. The more they talk, the more they seem to conceal. Alice, meanwhile, slides between varying levels of consciousness, recalling her past and a love affair that recently ended. A riveting story that skips through time and interweaves multiple points of view, After You'd Gone is a novel of stunning psychological depth and marks the debut of a major literary talent.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It's the depiction of . . . deceptively small moments that is O'Farrell's winning gift. . . . Her absorbing characters gracefully circle one another 'round the room like moths at the light bulb,' grazing their wings against life's raw heat instead of being consumed by it." —The New York Times Book Review

"After You'd Gone is beautifully written contemporary fiction." —The Sunday Times

bn.com
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Last season we selected a Booker Prize finalist for Discover, Trezza Azzopardi's The Hiding Place. This season, we've chosen another first novel from across the Great Pond with a similar sense of truths hidden, as if suspended under ice. In Maggie O'Farrell's gripping debut, Alice Raikes, a grieving young widow, takes a train from London to visit her family in Scotland. But after witnessing something shocking in the restroom at the station, she abruptly heads back to London without a word, leaving her sisters perplexed. A few hours later, Alice steps out into traffic, is hit by a car, and lies in a coma. Was it an accident or a suicide attempt? Family gathers at her bedside as Alice drifts in and out of consciousness, remembering her childhood, her first romance, and the love of her life -- her now-deceased husband, John, a journalist felled by a bomb. Like a lens slowly coming into focus, Alice's voice is blurred with the voices of her loved ones, until the true image of Alice's identity becomes clear. A fascinating story of families in which painful, buried truths finally come to the surface, After You'd Gone is also a warning of sorts to those who hold secrets. With searing honesty and depth, Maggie O'Farrell combines a tragic love story with tension-filled moments of suspense cleverly mixed with the ingredients of coincidence and chance. An ambitious debut, this first novel promises to break the hearts of those who search the truths lying within its pages. (Spring 2001 Selection)
Maud Casey
While skillfully employing interwoven multiple points of view . . . O'Farrell performs a traditional, old-fashioned storytelling striptease, seductively unveiling layer after layer of revelatory secrets.
New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
O'Farrell has written a deeply elusive book, one made more mysterious, somehow, by her wonderful sense of detail.
Boston Globe
...utterly beautiful...poetic and wise...a lovely and fully realized performance.
Seattle Times
After You'd Gone is a memorable first novel.
Baltimore Sun
...a memorable debut and a headily promising one...a fine novel...a work of depth.
Plain Dealer
This first novel delivers; let there be more.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like a pointillist painting, this fine debut is, from one perspective, formless--short vignettes, told from multiple points of view and in multiple voices, that are somewhat puzzling on their own and apparently have no connection to each other. Ultimately, however, these elements merge into a coherent and moving portrait of a young woman's journey toward a life-threatening crisis. In London, one cold day in late fall, Alice Raikes impulsively boards a train home to Scotland. Shortly after joining her two sisters in the Edinburgh train station, she sees something "odd and unexpected and sickening" in the station's restroom that causes her immediately to flee back to London. Later that evening, while walking to the grocery store, Alice broods over what she has seen, then abruptly steps into oncoming traffic. As she lies comatose in her hospital bed, a swirl of voices and images gradually reveals her past--her parents, especially her mother, Ann; her beloved grandmother, Elspeth; her two sisters, so unlike her, both physically and temperamentally; and John Friedman, whom she loved and lost--and hints at her precarious future. The unnamed spectacle of the opening washroom scene resurfaces in Alice's semiconscious haze, and its eventual elucidation comes as less of a shock than a confirmation of all we have learned about her tumultuous existence. Sharply observed details of everyday life and language, original and telling figures of speech and deftly handled plot twists reach a moving climax, while subtly raising the question of whether the objects of Alice's affection--and the sources of her agony--were worth enduring. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
It is hard to believe that such an assured work comes from a first novelist. Starting in London with a young woman stepping off a curb in front of an oncoming car, O'Farrell gradually lays bare the harrowing realization that prompted the suicide attempt. On one level, this is a love story; on another it is an intergenerational tale of three women (grandmother Elspeth, mother Ann, and Alice, the victim). But to describe it as such sounds platitudinous, which it is definitely not. With smooth prose, O'Farrell moves seamlessly among the victim's family and friends and back and forth in time in seemingly random fashion, slowly revealing her characters' pasts and stunningly bringing the story back to the present. Despite its premise, this is not a depressing book. Published originally in the UK to good reviews, it should appeal to fans of Mary Gordon and Margaret Atwood, though it will draw a more popular audience than the latter.--Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First-time novelist O'Farrell powerfully reworks a seemingly familiar tale. At the outset, Alice Raikes is suffering from some terrible, unexplained hurt. Impulsively she dashes from her North London home to see her sisters in Edinburgh. But while they're picking her up at the train station, she sees something that upsets her even more and minutes later jumps back on the train to London. That night she's hit by a car, either accidentally or as the result of a suicide attempt. After this mysterious and disturbing prologue, O'Farrell proceeds to tell the story of three generations of Raikes women and their lives in the small Scottish town of North Berwick, focusing primarily on Alice. Her actions in the opening pages are actually not really atypical: Alice is impetuous and moody, unlike her precise, chilly English mother and her quiet, methodical Scots grandmother. O'Farrell constructs the saga of these three women as a series of brief, interlocking vignettes, shifting between many layers of past and present, juggling some half-dozen different viewpoints. Deeply felt but very secret pain is the attribute that unites all of these characters, even Alice's barely glimpsed father-in-law, whose absence turns out to be a pivotal element in the story. Alice's seeming suicide attempt is a catalyst, a stone thrown into a pool that precipitates ripples of misery that wash back into the past and forward to the future. O'Farrell is an astute observer of little behaviors, the telling fidgets and habits of everyday existence, and she's at her best when piecing these together to create a sense of a real life experienced through fiction. The complex structure works beautifully, communicating the shared and interlocking sufferings of the Raikes women through its carefully worked-out layering of narrative lines. Often painful to read, but finally quite satisfying.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780142000328
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/26/2002
Edition description:
Reissue
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
542,282
Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

The only bit Alice can see of her father is the soles of his shoes. They are a faded brown, striated with the grit and terrain of the pavements he has walked. She is allowed to run along the pavement outside their house to meet him coming home from work in the evening. In the summertime she sometimes runs in her nightie, its pale folds catching around her knees. But now it's winter — November, maybe. The soles of the shoes are curved around the branch of a tree at the bottom of their garden. She tips back her head as far as it will go. The foliage rustles and thrashes. Her father's voice swears. She feels a shout welling like tears in her throat, then the coarse orange rope lowers itself, slightly coiled like a cobra from the branches.

    `Got it?'

    She seizes the rope's waxed head in her mittened hand. `Yes.'

    The branches shake as her father swings down. He lays a hand briefly on Alice's shoulder then bends to pick up the tyre. She is fascinated by the meandering rivulets that wander through its tread and the weft underneath its heavy black rubber. `That's what holds it together,' the man at the shop had told her. The sudden scraped bald patch in the middle of the meanders makes her shudder but she doesn't quite know why. Her father winds the orange rope around the tyre and makes a thick, twisted knot.

    `Can I have a go now?' Her hands grip the tyre.

    `No. I have to test it with my weight first.'

    Alice watches as her father jounces on the tyre, testing to see if it is safe enough for her. Shelooks up to see the branch shake in sympathy and looks quickly back at her father. What if he were to fall? But he is getting off and lifting her on, her bones as small, white and bendable as birds'.


Alice and John sit in a café in a village in the Lake District. It's early autumn. She holds up a sugar cube between finger and thumb, the light behind it making its crystals the massed cells of an intricate organism under a microscope.

    `Did you know,' says John, `that someone did a chemical analysis of sugar cubes in café sugar bowls and that they found strong traces of blood, semen, faeces and urine?'

    She keeps her face serious. `I didn't know that, no.'

    He holds her deadpan gaze until the edges of his mouth are tugged downwards. Alice gets hiccups and he shows her how to cure them by drinking out of the opposite side of a glass. Beyond them, through the window, a plane draws a sheer white line on the sky.

    She looks at John's hands, breaking up a bread roll, and suddenly knows she loves him. She looks away, out of the window, and sees for the first time the white line made by the plane. It has by this time drifted into woolliness. She thinks about pointing it out to John, but doesn't.


Alice's sixth summer was hot and dry. Their house had a large garden with the kitchen window looking out over the patio and garden so whenever Alice and her sisters were playing outside they could look up and see their mother watching over them. The freakish heat dried up the reservoirs, previously unheard-of in Scotland, and she went with her father to a pump at the end of the street to collect water in round white vats. The water drummed into their empty bottoms. Half-way between the house and the end of the garden was the vegetable patch where peas, potatoes and beetroot pushed their way up from thick, dark soil. On a particularly bright day that summer, Alice stripped off her clothes, scooped up clods of that earth and smeared it in vivid tiger stripes all over her body.

    She scared the pious, nervous children next door by roaring at them through the hedge until her mother rapped on the window-pane and shouted at her to stop that at once. She retreated into the undergrowth to collect twigs and leaves to construct a wigwam-shaped lair. Her younger sister stood outside the lair and whinged to be let in. Alice said, only if you are a tiger. Beth looked at the soil and then at her clothes and then at their mother's face in the kitchen window. Alice sat in the moist dark with her stripes, growling and gazing at the triangle of sky visible through the top of the lair.


`You thought you were a little African boy, didn't you?'

    She sits in the bath, her hair plastered into dripping spikes, and her grandmother soaps her back and front. The skin of her grandmother's hands feels roughened. The water is grey-brown, full of the garden's soil, lifted off her skin. In the next room she can hear the thrum of her father's voice, talking on the telephone.

    `Don't cover yourself in soil again, will you, Alice?'

    Her skin looks lighter under the water. Is this what skin looks like when it's dead?

    `Alice? Promise me you won't do it again.'

    She nods her head, spraying water over the ceramic sides of the yellow bath.

    Her grandmother towels her back. `Wee angel wings,' she says, patting Alice's shoulder-blades dry. `Everyone was an angel once, and this is where our wings would have been.'

    She twists her head around to see the jutting isosceles triangle of bone flex and retract beneath her skin, as if preparing for celestial flight.


Across the café table, John looks at Alice who is looking out of the window. Today she has pulled the weight of her hair away from her face, giving her the appearance of a Spanish niña or a flamenco dancer. He imagines her that morning brushing the shining mass of her hair before dipping it at the back of her head. He reaches over the empty coffee mugs and cups the large knot of hair in his palm. She turns her eyes on him in surprise.

    `I just wanted to know what it felt like.'

    She touches it herself before saying, `I often think about getting it all cut off.'

    `Don't,' John says quickly, `don't ever cut it off.' The aureoles of her eyes widen in surprise. `It might contain all your strength,' he jokes feebly. He wants to free it from its silver clasp and bury his face in it. He wants to inhale its smell to the bottom of his lungs. He has caught its scent before. The first time he met her, she was standing in the doorway of his office with a book in her hand, and her hair swung at her waist so cleanly that he fancied it almost made a bell-like note. He wants to edge along its byways and curves in the dark and wake up in its strands.

    `Do you want another coffee?' she says, and as she turns to look for the waitress he sees the shorter hairs springing from the nape of her neck.


Sometime after that coffee, John stretched his arms across the table and pressed her head between his hands. `Alice Raikes,' he said, `I'm afraid I'm going to have to kiss you.'

    `You're going to have to?' she said levelly, although her heart was hammering in her ribcage. `Do you think now would be a good time to do it, then?'

    He made a great show of pretending to think about it, rolling his eyes, creasing his forehead. `I think now is probably OK.'

    Then he kissed her, very gently at first. They kissed for a long time, their fingers entwining. After a while, he pulled back and said, `I think if we don't go soon, we may be asked to leave. I doubt they'd appreciate us making love on the table.' He was holding on to her hand so tightly that her knucklebones were beginning to hurt. She floundered with her other hand for her bag under the table, but encountered only his legs. He wedged her hand between his knees.

    She began to laugh. `John! Let go!' She struggled to release both her hands but his grip only tightened. He was smiling at her, a puzzled look on his face.

    `If you don't let me go we can't leave or make love,' she reasoned.

    He released her immediately. `You are absolutely right.'

    He fished her bag off the floor himself and hurried her into her coat. As they walked out of the door, he pressed her to his side, breathing into her hair.


The curtains in the sitting room of their house were of a heavy dark mauve damask, insulated on the outermost side with a thin membrane of yellowing sponge. As a child, Alice took against these curtains. She found it incredibly satisfying to peel away great swatches of the sponge, leaving the mauve material threadbare with light shining through it. One Hallowe'en, after they had scooped out the soft moss of a pumpkin's innards and scored square eyes and a jagged mouth into its skin, Beth and Alice were left reverently gazing at its flicking, demonic glow. Kirsty had eaten too much of the pumpkin scrapings and was being administered to somewhere else in the house. She couldn't say whether she actually planned to burn the curtains but she somehow found herself standing beside them, holding a lit match in a thin-fingered grip, training its curling flame to the curtain's edge. They caught fire with astonishing speed; the damask fizzled away as the flames tore upwards. Beth began to scream, great tongues of flame were licking across the ceiling. Alice jumped up and down in delight and exhilaration, clapping her hands and shouting. Then her mother burst into the room and dragged her away. She shut the door on them and the three of them stood wide-eyed and frozen in the hallway.


Ann runs down the stairs two at a time. Beth's screams are getting louder. They are real screams, full of terror. The sitting room is filled with smoke and the curtains are on fire. Beth hurls herself sobbing at Ann's knees and grips both her legs tightly. Ann is for a moment immobilised and it is then that she sees Alice. She is gazing at the flames, rapt, her whole body contorted and twisted with delight. In her right hand is a spent match. Ann lurches forward and seizes her daughter by the shoulder. Alice struggles in her grasp like a hooked fish. Ann is shocked by her sudden strength. They tussle, Alice spitting and snarling until Ann manages to grip both her hands and drags her kicking to the door. She shuts all three of her children in the hall and then runs to the kitchen for water.


John has fallen into a deep sleep. The rhythm of his breathing is that of a deep-sea diver. His head is resting on Alice's sternum. She sniffs his hair. A slight woody smell like freshly sharpened pencils. Some kind of shampoo. Lemon? She inhales again. A vague overlay of the cigarette smoke of the café. She places her hand on his ribcage and feels the swell and fall of his lungs. The whispering tick, tick of her own blood sounds against her eardrums.

    She eases herself out from underneath him and hugs her knees to her chest. She is tempted to wake him up. She wants to talk. His skin is tanned a light golden brown all over, except for his groin which is a pale, vulnerable white. She cups her hand over his penis, curled against his leg. It twitches in response. She laughs and covers his body with her own, burying her nose and mouth in the curve of his neck. `John? Are you awake?'


The fire was put out by my mother dousing it with water. The black sooty streaks were to scar the ceiling for years. Although my parents often talked about redecorating the room, the fire was never mentioned, never discussed. Not once did they ask me what had prompted me to set fire to the curtains.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"It's the depiction of . . . deceptively small moments that is O'Farrell's winning gift. . . . Her absorbing characters gracefully circle one another 'round the room like moths at the light bulb,' grazing their wings against life's raw heat instead of being consumed by it." —The New York Times Book Review

"After You'd Gone is beautifully written contemporary fiction." —The Sunday Times

Meet the Author

Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel, After You’d Gone, won a Betty Trask Award and earned her a spot on the “21 great talents for the 21st century” list compiled by the Orange Prize for Fiction panel.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK     
Place of Birth:
Coleraine, Northern Ireland
Education:
BA Hons, English Literature, University of Cambridge
Website:
http://www.maggieofarrell.com/bio.html

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