Rhian Ellis’s novel After Life is a tricky one to write about. Mostly because any discussion of its subject will quickly give away its secrets. In a general sense, this is a novel about death and regret, about losing someone you care about and not knowing how to move on. But this preoccupation comes from a unique perspective since our main character (and narrator), Naomi, is a spiritualist and a medium.
Ellis handles this unfamiliar world with incredible restraint. Nowhere does the story derail into some sideshow spectacle of the bizarreness of communing with the dead or spiritualism’s eccentric adherents. These events and people are mostly treated as mundane experience and so the reader is able to appreciate them as such. Which is good because the actual story of After Life is not mundane at all.
This is all I can tell you: When the novel opens Naomi is remembering the day, ten years before, when she had to bury her boyfriend. I don’t mean this figuratively. She had to bury him with her own two hands, dig him a hole on the other side of a lake and try to get him in. It is a disturbing scene, made even more difficult by the fact that we don’t know how he died or why Naomi is burying him.
Somehow, despite this event, Naomi has managed to continue moving through her day to day. She takes care of someone else’s child. She works at the Spiritualist library/museum in her town. She gives readings and maintains her communion with the spirits who contact her about her clients. But it’s also abundantly clear that Naomi is not okay at all. She is unkempt (sometimes quite dirty), unsociable and easily upset. She struck me as an incredibly depressed individual.
Of course the inevitable occurs. Peter’s bones are found and the police begin an investigation to sort out who they belong to. They enlist the help of Naomi’s mother (also a medium) and Naomi gets involved. I can’t say anything else or I really will give something away.
More than these plot twists (as engaging as they were) After Life focused more on Naomi’s loneliness and regret. All was not right between Naomi and Peter before Peter died and Naomi is literally coming apart at the seams with remorse. Which is kind of ironic because, as a medium, she should still have access to him. If she wanted she could try to get through to him. And to make matters worse she has to negotiate the reality that in her professional life she is supposed to believe that dead people really haven’t gone away, so why should she be allowed to feel loneliness at all?
Naomi questions her powers throughout the book, which is something that made the novel interesting and complex. Many of the scenes that involve channeling spirits are layered with a level of doubt because Naomi admits that maybe she just imagined she saw someone’s grandmother, or maybe she just remembered details from a recent obituary. The novel opens up a thorough discussion about the powers of belief and how far they can be pushed to amend reality.
There were a few places where I felt Naomi’s voice got in the way. Where her narration didn’t quite give enough space to her gestures and words – which together tell us more about what she’s thinking and feeling than any explanation she can offer up. But the book itself is good enough that these come across as nothing more than little speed bumps. What was more compelling to me about Naomi as a narrator was that she has a secret she wants very much to keep to herself, yet she’s the one who has decided to tell her story. That paradox was particularly engaging.