Mute Witness


Does a war end with a cease-fire, the signing of a treaty, the withdrawal of troops? Or does it continue on, unresolved and unassuaged, in the minds of those who fought it? And if a war is never officially declared, can it ever end at all? Afterwards, the graceful—if uncomplicated—second novel by Scottish writer Rachel Seiffert, surveys how soldiers from two different conflicts contend with their restive memories.

Set in contemporary London, Afterwards centers on the unsuccessful romance between Alice, a nurse, and Joseph, a plasterer. Like Alice’s grandfather, who conducted bombing raids in Kenya 50 years before, Joseph suffers internal repercussions from his military service. But while the grandfather can reveal his experiences to a select few (including Joseph), Joseph can’t bring himself to speak of his time in Northern Ireland. These repressed emotions manifest violently, in abrupt outbursts and the occasional disappearance. Alice eventually resolves that she can’t love someone who would keep silent about such an integral part of his past.

Like Joseph, Seiffert opts for reticence of a sort. The novel’s length belies the restraint of her sentences and descriptions. She strips her lines of most excess, but the prose falls softly—the tone is reserved rather than taciturn. The grandfather describes a dawn raid, saying, “I can’t say what effect we had. It was too dense to see much, the forest. The white spotter’s flare I can remember. Sometimes a darker grey cloud thrown up by one of our bombs, but nothing much else. . . . They seemed to swallow everything, those trees.”

The novel asks if love demands complete knowledge, complete union, with nothing left out or kept separate. Its conclusion: Yes. Though Seiffert explored much murkier ethical issues in her Booker Prize–short-listed first novel, The Dark Room, here she seems to prefer easier—almost pat—answers and questions. Joseph at one point wonders: “If it’s not going to help. If you’re never going to change it. Why touch the sore point any more than you have to?” Yet he reasons that while his silence “had worked for him before [and] might do again,” it won’t allow him to sustain a romantic relationship. Joseph suggests a readiness for change, but Seiffert should perhaps stick to what served her well in the past.