Saturday 19 October 2019

Postscript review: Cecelia Ahern returns as a mature writer with a beautifully nuanced understanding of grief

Fiction: Postscript

Cecelia Ahern

HarperCollins, hardback, 362 pages, €12.99

Refined: like Cecelia Ahern, the lead character of Molly has also matured. Photo by David Conachy
Refined: like Cecelia Ahern, the lead character of Molly has also matured. Photo by David Conachy
Postscript

In the long-awaited follow-up to her debut 'PS, I Love You', Cecelia Ahern returns as a more mature writer with a beautifully nuanced understanding of grief, writes Meadhbh McGrath.

It's been a long time coming, but 15 years after the success of PS, I Love You, Cecelia Ahern is back with a new story about Holly, the young woman who lost her beloved husband, Gerry, to cancer. Ahern's debut novel, and the subsequent film adaptation, were such blockbuster hits that the idea of a sequel might make readers nervous. After all, what more is there left to say? Can Postscript possibly satisfy the fans?

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Happily, Ahern surpasses expectations with a gorgeously hopeful, poignant story that is guaranteed to make readers weep but leave them with a warm heart.

It's been seven years since Gerry's death, and six years since Holly received his last letter. She's now working in her sister Ciara's vintage clothes shop, and is in a relationship with Gabriel, a tree surgeon with a troubled teenage daughter from a previous marriage. The couple make plans to move in together, and as Holly prepares to leave the home she bought with Gerry, she feels she's finally moved on.

But when Holly reluctantly agrees to speak about Gerry's death and his letters on Ciara's podcast, her new life is upended by the PS, I Love You club: a group of four terminally ill men and women who ask for her help in saying their goodbyes to their loved ones.

At first, Holly resists. She worries that getting involved with the club will catapult her back into the darkness of her first year of grief, and interfere with the progress she has made. Yet Holly is soon drawn in by the heart-rending stories of the ailing club members, and starts to question whether she's really moving forward or backwards.

What's most striking about Postscript is how far Ahern has come since her 2004 debut. Her writing has matured and refined, and this novel is a much sharper, more emotionally astute read, with plenty of lines readers will want to cut out and keep (or share on Instagram), such as: "Death doesn't push us; death catches us when we fall".

Holly, too, has matured, and feels fuller and more complex than the Holly of PS, I Love You. That Holly seemed trapped in a stunted adolescence, with no job, no hobbies and little personality, and still surrounded by all of her school friends at 27, where the Holly of Postscript is more fleshed out. We see her interacting with people outside of her tight social circle and re-evaluating the narrow confines she's set herself.

In one scene, she recalls honeymoon planning with Gerry - a rare argument between the two, in which Gerry grows frustrated at her desire to have the same sun holiday she has every year. "You need to leave your comfort zone. Be braver, be more exciting! Open your mind!" he cries, which prompts her to think, years later: "I wonder if he was frustrated with standing still with me when there was a clock inside him ticking and pushing him to move forward. I wonder if I held him back. I wonder, if he'd met someone else, would he have lived a more fun, exciting, fulfilled life?"

This time around, however, Holly is getting far outside of her comfort zone with the PS, I Love You club, including the standout new character, 16-year-old single mother Ginika, who wants to learn to write a letter for her young daughter. Holly ends up spending three evenings a week teaching her, and their friendship gives rise to some of the most tender and moving moments in an already highly emotional story.

In checking in with Holly seven years after Gerry's death, Ahern offers a beautifully nuanced understanding of grief, and how it evolves and lingers over time. Holly realises that the woman she's grown into is very different from the one she was with Gerry. "I outlived my husband, and now I've outgrown him," she reflects. "If Gerry were to return and meet this woman seven years on, he would not recognise me."

Through her work with the club, Holly learns that thinking about Gerry and their time together doesn't signal a step back for her. "To look back, to go back, is not to be weak," she observes. "It takes strength, it takes courage. It takes a person who is more in control of who they are to cast a discerning, non-judgmental eye over who they once were."

What is less mature is the new relationship we find Holly in. Both Gabriel and Holly acknowledge that he can't be compared to Gerry, although of course that's what the reader does anyway. And it is difficult to engage with this new character. The couple have been together for two years by the time the novel opens, so we skip over the falling-in-love stage where readers would have the chance to learn why he's so special, rather than just being told he's a "keeper".

Unsupportive of Holly's new venture, Gabriel comes across sulky and jealous, and whenever the two fight, Holly determines his childish behaviour is "payback" for some perceived slight. It's hard to tell whether we're supposed to be rooting for them or wishing she'd get out of this stilted situation and get herself a more compelling love interest.

Thankfully, the romance isn't what drives the narrative. Ahern is more interested in the stories of the club members, which are told with care and compassion. By the final segment, however, she decides to shoot for something bolder, resulting in an ending that feels laboured and saccharine. It's a pity, as up to that point, Postscript had reached great depths with a light touch.

Ahern has said she is considering making it a trilogy, and the conclusion certainly leaves room for more. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 15 years this time.

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