Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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AfterwardsReview - Afterwards
A Novel
by Gina Berriault
Counterpoint, 1998
Review by Su Hunter
Nov 21st 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 47)

Gina Berriault writes a fabulous story about how a suicide affects the people one leaves behind. Though this is fiction, it is written in a fashion that this actually could have happened. Berriault holds your interest through this short novel; there is not one single slow section. Without giving the whole story line away, here is a quick review of what happens in her book.

To start off reading, it is advised that you read the back cover first. Without reading the setup, it would be a bit confusing to read the scene on which you are about to embark. Berriault opens her book with the Election Day after the suicide of Hal O. Costigan, senator running for presidential office of the United States. Hal has been caught with a seventeen year-old high school girl. Even though there are no signs leading up to the suicide, and no note left, it is apparent that he commits suicide to avoid the publicity of his affair. He leaves behind a wife and a son who immediately leave the area. He also leaves behind a devoted Mother, a younger brother, a younger sister, and of course, the high school girl that "knew" he loved her.

The Mother blames everyone for killing her son. Just like many parents, she is not capable of believing that her son would or ever could kill himself. She goes into mourning and disbelief and stays there until the end. The Mother finds she is not able to let go of her son, and spends the rest of her life as a bitter old woman. The sister works in the county record’s office at the court house. She lives with her Mother. She becomes a bit hostile towards men, and finds herself becoming good friends with a co-worker. They begin frequenting bars, not looking for men, but just to hang out and gossip. Naomi does, however, find a man whom she can finally trust, and they eventually marry. What is sure to be a "…happily ever after." ending for her, takes a different twist.

The younger brother, Cort, marries and has children, but cannot stop talking about the death of his older brother, Hal. This plays a big part on his new married life, and almost ends the marriage prematurely. Cort’s wife finds herself competing with a dead man for her husband’s love.

The young high school girl, who had many plans for her life, finds herself in a never-ending circle with married men. She moves away after graduation, and moves into a house with many girl housemates. Each one has their own room, but they share the house. She makes friends with one of the French girls who always tells her how beautiful she is. Delores finds herself continually matching up with married men, thinking that they love her, and always getting hurt at the end of the affair.

The author works this story in a very unusual way. She writes a chapter at a time about one of the characters, and how this suicide is effecting that character’s life. Instead of the next chapter going to another character's life for that same time frame, she continues the time, and changes character. This is a very interesting and effective method. She shows how a suicide can be devastating to the people they leave behind. and illustrates how life continues on, even after the time stops for the one who commits suicide.

In the end of the book, she brings the wife and son back in to the story. The book closes nicely with the reunion of the sister, Naomi, and the wife and son of Hal Costigan. The son has grown up and is getting ready to go off to college. The wife had told her son that his father died of a heart attack. When Naomi calls about the visit, and then shows up on the front porch, the wife, Isobel, begs Naomi not to tell her son about the suicide. Can Naomi talk about the brother whom she so dearly loved, and not say anything to lead to the boy finding out that it was suicide and not a heart attack? If he did find out, would it affect him now?

This is a short novel that is easy and enjoyable to read. Although about a very heavy topic, it comes off the press very lightly. Berriault does something by accident that some authors try to do their whole life and can not accomplish, and that is to appeal to a wide audience. Laymen, clergymen, clients of those who attempt suicide and professionals, who usually end up counseling the family members left behind, will find this book stimulating to read. This is a book that one might curl up in bed, on a rainy day, and relax and read. I was so impressed with the writing that I now want to read other novels by Gina Berriault.


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