Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.
Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.
The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).
A painful past
In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)
Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.
The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.
The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.
Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time, but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.
By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.
But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.
The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.
Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.
Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.
This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.
But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)
Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:
As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.
All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!
The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.