Saturday 17 March 2018

Moyes' moving saga of suicide and grief

After You, JoJo Moyes, Penguin, €17.99

Anne Cunningham

Following on the unprecedented success of her novel Me Before You, and its soon to be released movie, JoJo Moyes revisits one of her most engaging heroines, Lou Clark, in her latest book. After You returns to Lou's life just 18 months after the death of her beloved Will who, left completely paralysed after an accident, chose to take his own life in a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. She had been his carer and companion, and followed a long line of predecessors - all of whom were either dismissed or left of their own accord.

Will was not an easy man to care for. He and Lou began their professional relationship by merely tolerating each other, and they eventually fell in love. After You opens with Lou working as a barmaid in an Irish-themed airport bar. She's her cheery old self with the customers, or so it seems, until she returns home to her tiny London flat. To brood and drink some wine, a habit that's become increasingly frequent of late. She climbs the fire escape one night to view the city from the roof - another recently acquired habit - and loses her footing when she's startled by a voice. She sees the pale face of a girl just before she falls - five floors. It's all a bit grim, isn't it? But extracting humour from grim situations is a speciality of JoJo Moyes, and so the reader is immediately thrown into an uproarious exchange between Lou and the paramedic who insists she hold on, as she tries to speak to him in the ambulance.

She has suffered multiple injuries and must endure a protracted convalescence back in her home town, with her crazy but loveable family. She can't seem to convince anyone that this was not an attempted suicide, that there really was a girl on the roof. So, nine weeks later, when she returns to London and to her job, she attends - as promised - a weekly self-help bereavement group called the Moving On Circle. And it is through a teenage boy in the Circle who's lost his mum, that Lou runs into Sam, the same paramedic who tended to her in the ambulance. So it continues the boy-meets-girl saga, one would think, but Moyes is classier than that.

A knock on her apartment door soon after she returns to London at least proves what Lou has insisted on all along. There was indeed a girl on the roof the night Lou fell. A brash and feisty teenager called Lily. And she turns up again, with the most shocking of revelations. She insists that she's Will's daughter. Lou is devastated. If what this girl says is true, how could Will have kept such a huge secret? From everyone? And how could he have forged ahead with his own planned suicide in the knowledge that he was leaving a young and vulnerable daughter behind? Who was this man that Lou had loved, and was he really capable of keeping such a huge secret?

What ensues is a cleverly-woven plot with several unexpected turns. Besides the plot, though, this book is a tender novel about the huge impact of grief, and most especially the grief that suicide brings. Will's family are broken and seem beyond repair. His mother in particular - The Ice Queen - has, it seems, just ceased to function. And yet, just like its predecessor, this novel still manages to be funny. Extremely funny. It's a frank and comic study in family dynamics; the ones that work and the ones that don't. It's also a candid portrait of a most unlikely heroine, Louisa Clark, who's still living in the shadow of her past, but remains petrified at the thought of her future. I suspect that After You will be another blockbuster. Well-deserved, too.

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