Grace is at her son, Adam’s, school for sports day. Nearly all of the children are outdoors when suddenly the building erupts in fire. As Grace looks around for her seventeen-year-old daughter, Jenny, she realizes that she is still inside where she has been serving as a student assistant in the medical room, situated on the top floor. Seeing that eight-year-old Adam is outside being comforted by Jenny’s classmate, Rowena, Grace raises into the burning building to find Jenny.
Suddenly, Grace finds she outside her body, watching events unfold in the hospital to which she and Jenny have been transported. Re-entering her body is effortless, but she cannot open her eyes, move her limbs or communicate, so she floats back out of it to observe what is transpiring. As her beloved husband of nineteen years, Mike, arrives and is advised that Grace is comatose after having suffered severe brain trauma, she is joined by Jenny. With second degree burns and smoke inhalation injuries, Jenny is also moving freely outside her body. The two of them can move about both within and beyond the hospital walls, but no one can see or communicate with them.
Grace and Jenny watch as Mike and his determined police detective sister, Sarah, deal with the grim prognoses delivered by Grace and Jenny’s treating physicians. Worse, when they learn that the fire was the work of an arsonist, Grace and Jenny are able to seamlessly follow and eavesdrop on not only Mike and Sarah, but the various suspects and their families. As time is running out to save Grace and Jenny’s lives, Sarah risks her own career and livelihood to solve the mystery of who would want to see the school destroyed — and Jenny dead. Can she learn the truth and will the information matter if neither Grace nor Jenny can be spared?
Author Rosamund Lupton utilizes a unique narrative style that elevates Afterwards, a tautly-imagined “whodunit” filled with plot twists that are not fully resolved until nearly the last page, into an insightful and thought-provoking look at what is truly meaningful in life, why we should appreciate all the small moments during our days that we often take for granted, and whether life continues when we are no longer inhabiting our human bodies. In other words, whether there is life afterwards.
Grace became pregnant with Jenny while a university student, but happily married Mike, and has been a part-time art reviewer since. There is a nagging regret that she never fulfilled her professional ambition to be an artist, but it is fleeting when she measures it against her greatest accomplishments: her beautiful children and successful marriage. Adam is their miracle child, carried to term after three previous miscarriages, and he is truly good-hearted, doted on by his parents and beautiful big sister. Although Jenny is bright, Grace is bothered by her unwillingness to fully apply herself to her studies while dowdy Rowena steals all of the academic glory, excelling in every subject and is on-track to study science at Oxford. Jenny was stalked for a time via email, and personally-delivered messages and unwanted “gifts,” but the anonymous predator has not made any further contact in four months — or so Grace believes. When the fire is ruled arson, the question of who would want to harm Jenny looms large in light of the fact that her stalker was never identified and prosecuted.
Jenny is a typical teenage girl, more focused on her boyfriend than her schoolwork and irritated by her mother’s nagging. She is popular, save for the stalker, and would do anything for her precious little brother. More than anything, Jenny wants a chance to live her life, so Grace tries to shield her from the dire truth about her physical condition as the two of them invisibly navigate the hospital, observing the goings-on and waiting for their outcomes to see if they want to re-inhabit their damaged bodies. Of course, they cannot communicate with the living — they can only watch and hope that they somehow stumble upon the same truths that Grace and Jenny are discovering in the course of their surreptitious travels.
Mike, a television journalist, is devoted to his family, but suffers the typical guilt associated with finding his wife and daughter in critical condition and his young son traumatized by the whole ordeal. His anger and feelings of failure for not preventing the calamities fuel him to begin investigating the case himself. Joined by his tough and wise older sister, Sarah, who has been placed on compassionate leave by the police force that employs her, they focus their attention on a teacher, beloved by the student body, who was recently fired following a playground accident. Blamed for improperly supervising the children, Mike knows that one of the youngsters was a recalcitrant bully who terrorized Adam and suspects that he may have contributed to the incident. But he also believes the teacher may have been Jenny’s stalker and urges the police to focus their investigative efforts upon him. His concerns are echoed by Rowena’s mother, Maisie, who has recently expressed strongly negative feelings about the former teacher that left Grace somewhat baffled. Could there be reasons for her best friend’s vitriol that she never considered until now?
Afterwards moves at a quick, steady pace as the companion mysteries concerning the stalker and arsonist’s identities and motives are unraveled. Does Grace know Jenny — or any of her friends and family — as well as she thinks she does? And what family secrets has Maisie, seemingly so open, emotionally honest, unflinchingly supportive, been keeping from her good friend? As Grace narratives the action to Mike, she remembers so many aspects of their family life — average moments that she now realizes she may never get to experience again. Her storytelling is actually a love letter to the man she has loved for so many years. Grace is a sympathetic everywoman with whom readers can readily empathize, just as Mike is an average father doing the best he possibly can to navigate the devastating circumstances into which he and his family are suddenly thrust. The result is a highly effective, emotionally satisfying story that will inspire readers to examine their own relationships with family and close friends, as well as their thoughts about whether or not life continues afterwards and, if so, in what form. Afterwards receives my enthusiastic recommendation for fans of both mysteries and family dramas.