Tuesday 21 November 2017

A sense of loss for an inseparable friend, and placating her annoying little sister

Fiction: After Isabella, Rosie Fiore, Allen & Unwin, pbk, 384 pages, €16.25

Absorbing: Rosie Fiore
Absorbing: Rosie Fiore
After Isabella by Rosie Fiore
Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

Why are women so distrustful of female friendship? That's the question posed by Rosie Fiore in her latest novel, After Isabella.

Esther had been best friends with Isabella since her first day at a new school when she was nine years old. Vibrant, charismatic and full of life, Isabella quickly became the sister that only child Esther never had. Despite taking different paths in life - Isabella became a renowned architect, happily child-free, while academic Esther married her university boyfriend and had a baby girl - they remained inseparable until Isabella died of cancer when she was just 39.

Fiore's novel opens as Esther reels from this devastating blow. Isabella had been cared for during her final days by her younger sister Sally. Eight years later, Esther and Sally meet again at the funeral of Sally's mother Joan. She had suffered from dementia and Sally had nursed her through her illness.

Esther is by now divorced and living with her daughter - the delightful 12-year-old Lucie - in a neat two-bedroom townhouse. She is head of the English department at the university where she works, and while her social circle is small, she is content with her carefully constructed life. She is just starting to think that it would be nice to meet someone. But Esther soon discovers that dating second time round can be a fraught affair.

Sally has barely left the house during the years she looked after her mother. Her bright blonde curls have faded to a mess of mouse and grey, and her previously cherubic looks have been masked by weight gain. She hasn't had time for friends, a boyfriend, a job. To Esther's eyes, she looks defeated by loneliness and loss.

But Sally is determined that now is finally her time and she wants to embrace all that life has to offer. She throws off the vestiges of her former isolation, joining an amateur drama group, learning to drive and forming new relationships among Esther's social circle.

Lucie is entranced by Sally's seemingly sweet and innocent character, but Esther is reluctant to open herself up to Isabella's sibling. Once an annoying little sister, always an annoying little sister, it seems. Yet Sally is determined to be Esther's friend, no matter the cost.

After Isabella is the fifth novel from Johannesburg-born Rosie Fiore. She moved to the UK from South Africa 16 years ago, and in 2003 was on her way by train to a meeting in Leeds when the outline of a story came to her. She managed to write 1,200 words before the battery of her laptop ran out. She reckoned that if she continued at this rate, she would have a novel in 100 days.

That first novel, This Year's Black, was longlisted for the South African Sunday Times Literary Award. Fiore still writes 1,200 words a day, seven days a week, when she's working on a first draft.

Her writing pedigree is clear in After Isabella. Fiore has a firm grip on the complexities of our various relationships - with family, friends, lovers, exes.

She certainly doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life and the issues facing women in particular, but she does so in a thought-provoking and sensitive manner. Although Esther isn't a particularly sympathetic character, it's impossible not to feel for her as she experiences blow after blow, when one by one the elements of her life begin to shatter and she must contemplate the notion of friendship and trust.

In After Isabella, Fiore has created a compelling and provocative read, nicely paced and thoroughly absorbing. At times, both heart-warming and poignant, it's impossible not to feel a sense of loss on turning the final page.

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