After Before tells the stories of three women – Emily, Vera and Lynn. The novel begins with Emily signing up with a cleaning agency:
She said her name was Emily. It had always seemed easier for English people to pronounce than Emilienne, and she refused to offer this part of herself, also, for sacrifice.
“Okay, do you have any cleaning experience Emily?” asked the thick-necked, white woman behind the desk. She shuffled the forms in front of her, impatience spilling into Emily’s pause, but it wasn’t a simple question to answer. The woman said it so easily, rolling off her tongue as smooth as the flesh beneath the skin of a sweet potato, the same as most of the words Emily had thrown at her over the years: stupid, ungrateful, cockroach. Emily’s mind ran over the dirty floors of her flat that she hadn’t so much as threatened with a vacuum; then to the sparkling windows and door knobs in the house she’d cleaned and lived in once, belonging to Auntie; then tentatively to the dark puddles of blood she’d scrubbed from her father’s floor.
“Yes,” Emily decided upon. “I have experience.”
Emily lives in a tiny room in Golders Green. She likes being alone away from daylight. She has frequent flashbacks to her past, to the Rwandan genocide.
We meet Vera as she says ‘yes’ to Luke’s marriage proposal.
It is after all now 602 days since Vera last took cocaine, 433 since she’s smoked anything heavier than a regular Camel Light – though Luke believes she’s given those up too – and exactly 366 days since she’s had sex.
Luke’s a devout Christian and Vera’s been attending his church since she met him. She has a prayer/mantra she repeats frequently:
Dear God, help me to be better, to be worthy, make me clean.
She too has a past, a past that Luke’s unaware of.
Lynn is Luke’s mother. When Luke and Vera arrive to tell her of their engagement, she has news of her own: she’s dying of cancer. Vera decides that taking a sabbatical from work to care for Lynn is the right thing to do; Lynn’s not so keen though, she has her own reasons for disliking Vera.
“You’ve been asleep,” Luke said as he entered. “Mother, how are you?”
Rolling her eyes, Lynn sighed overtly back at him. Her son. One of only two accomplishments in her life. Not like women nowadays who could have it all. Like bright, career-driven, youthful Vera. Vera would live.
Lynn should have lived. She should have dared. The problem was she’d always liked to excel. Having taken on the role of wife, mother, it followed that she should strive to be the ideal version of that. No affairs, no complaints, no help, no excess; just church and family and rules and principles and propriety, and everything done properly from scratch. Doing what was right, what was expected. Not that suddenly losing one’s husband – and validation, and dreams, and future – was right, or proper, or expected.
A series of events lead to Emily becoming Lynn’s carer. Lynn decides that Emily needs to tell her story and forces it from her. Vera, meanwhile, confides in Charlie, her ex about past deeds and discovers it’s more complicated that she thought.
A lot happens in After Before; everyone has an issue, including minor characters. Many of the characters are cruel, Lynn and Charlie in particular. Lynn’s behaviour towards Emily, in which she places her in positions which force reminders of her treatment in the Rwandan genocide so she will tell her story are vile acts, regardless of Lynn’s belief that by making Emily confront her past, it will help her.
The transitions between Lynn and Emily in Lynn’s house and Rwanda are forced in the writing too. It’s a shame as the scenes in Rwanda are the best pieces in the book. Wayne’s clearly researched these sections but made them human by having the reader relate to one particular family. She shows how friends and neighbours turned against people and the extent of the violence inflicted.
The end of the novel for Luke, Emily and Lynn is a little too neatly tied up. Only Vera’s ending is more precarious, largely because Charlie’s behaviour is unpredictable after his actions changed radically in the middle of the book.
After Before has some interesting ideas and some interesting characters. Unfortunately though I found it uneven, both in terms of plot and character, and ultimately, unsatisfying.
Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.