Click here to read reviewer Pat Denehy's take on After.
Soon after an act of terrorism, when a woman's husband is brutally murdered, the widow is grappling with what is left of her world. She arbitrarily decides to have an affair with a Muslim and says so to her grief counselor, at first merely for shock value. But the idea holds a strange appeal, and the woman makes advances to a man she meets at a trade show. That he is of Persian origin is irrelevant; he fits the need of the moment. This Muslim has been unfaithful before, but recent events have branded him suspicious rather than mysterious, "reduced to a choice of pronouns," us or them.
Driving to a clandestine meeting at an unkempt hotel in California, the man ponders his life, remembering the violence in his own country, his childhood joy in the contours of the sea, a homeland left behind years ago. Perhaps the widow has chosen him because she cannot love him. Her reasons for the tryst are complicated, suspect. The Muslim has no delusions, only a wish to comfort this strange woman, misled by her changeable emotions.
The assignation takes place in an anonymous hotel room by the sea, any traces of romance obliterated by disuse and disrepair. He makes dogged attempts at intimacy, refusing to give up on her stubborn passivity, for the widow has seduced him with her vulnerability. Yet hints of darkness linger, unsettling. This union is disturbing rather than erotic as their coupling takes on a life of its own with surprising twists of cruelty, barely suppressed rage and incidents of violence. In only a day and a half, what should have been a simple transaction between virtual strangers degenerates into a purgative ritual, leaving the widow and the Muslim stunned.
This novel is either very brave or very cynical, as it embraces the recent tragedy of 9/11, Americans beheaded on foreign soil (Daniel Pearl) and the culture clash of Middle Eastern Fundamentalism with the loss of American innocence. Nothing is referenced, nor are names spoken, only suggestions, but a recent violence is tangible, a widow grappling with the aftermath of death. The Muslim seeks only the comforts of an extra-marital affair, thinking of himself as an individual, but this is not the time for such distinctions as the woman is blinded by the enormity of her loss.
Riding the widow’s subconscious to the darkest corners of her rage and grief, the author unleashes the demons that have usurped her ability to function. Prodding relentlessly at the widow’s damaged psyche, Tristram creates a vulnerable, haunted character, driven to act out what she cannot process in words, love and hate impossibly entwined.
This provocative novel examines the reclamation of self by a woman unmoored by an act of infidelity with the object of her enmity, who cannot achieve closure by ordinary means. Whether the author goes too far is for the reader to decide; After may an act of bravery, a disclosure of the forbidden in order to uncover hidden reserves of hatred and unfathomable grief.