Grace is a 39-year-old mother of two who read art history at Cambridge University. Her husband hosts a BBC television program about extreme climates. They struggle to keep the marriage on track and the kids in private school in Chiswick, England. Then the unthinkable happens. There’s a fire at school and Grace runs in to find her teenage daughter. All signs point to arson—perhaps even an attempt on her daughter’s life. That’s the set-up for this literary crime novel, which has received a mountain of praise from the European press.
That praise is entirely warranted. Like Lupton’s previous bestselling novel, Sisters, this book is full of poetic touches that illuminate setting, character and plot. Who dunnit? Who cares when we have such delicately shaded personalities and emotional conflicts to savour? While Grace’s comatose body is in the hospital, she floats above, à la The Lovely Bones, in an out-of-body experience, and we see her trying to solve the mystery. Grace combs through the suspects, including a school secretary forced into retirement, her bimbo replacement, a disgraced teacher, the headmistress, a wife beater, a wallflower and an eight-year-old bully. Also trying to find the arsonist is Grace’s sister-in-law, a police officer with a double life. Although the book is structured as a crime novel, it’s also a study of Grace’s unfolding respect for the woman—who Grace was once willing to dismiss as judgmental, controlling and cold.
Curiously, Lupton begins chapter three with a recap of the plot. Another recap appears at the end of chapter 13. By then, the twists and turns are thrilling, but nothing that requires a refresher. Despite these annoying speed bumps, Afterwards is a novel full of unexpected pleasures. Lupton’s greatest skill lies in complicating the suspects’ motives while balancing the hospital drama (“the soft footfall of nurses in sneakers”) with her devilishly fun gallows humour.