Published by Corvus
Here lies a particular modern horror story that will strike fear into the hearts of every millennial. You’re finally in a position to buy a house, in Dublin no less. You go for one last viewing just to be on the safe side but you and your partner know in your heart of hearts that the last place you saw is The One, the offer is in and is almost certainly going to be accepted and this last viewing is basically a reassurance that you’ve made the right decision. Then on the way to this one last viewing, that isn’t even necessary, one of you goes and dies.
Grace After Henry begins just this way – what’s supposed to be the start of the rest of this young couple’s life together is actually the end of it. Two chapters and months later we find Grace curled up in the hallway of her brand new house (the sale did go through, with the benevolent help of the dearly departed Henry’s parents), unable to process her grief and unwilling to let go of her overwhelming sadness. She obsessively reads A Christmas Carol, the book they were reading to each other in turns nightly before Henry died, but only up until the chapter they both finished on. Her parents have finally encouraged her to return to work as a cook in a trendy eatery, but she’s still barely getting by through the fog of bereavement.
Her life as she knows it has ended and the only comfort she will allow is the company of three widowers who tend the graves of their late wives nearby to where Henry is buried. Their banter allows her reprieve from her life in mourning, acceptable as it’s amongst those who are aware of what she’s going through. But whenever the thought strikes her that she’s moving on in any tiny, discernible way she shuts down her progress by remembering in detail the good times she and Henry had together, from their first meeting to their first “I love you” to their annoying in-jokes that only their little twosome would find in any way amusing.
Grace After Henry is the second novel by Eithne Shortall, whose first, Love on Row 27, was a fairly forgettable piece of women’s fiction. How does the author follow up what was a pretty mediocre but generally well received debut novel? With a much more assured, interesting story about enduring love, hopeless grief and what on Earth comes next. A strange twist of fate puts even more of a stall to Grace’s progress when Henry shows up at her house one day, in shorts, t-shirt and an Australian accent. Who is this doppelganger? What’s his story? How is he connected to Henry? Is this the real life or is it just fantasy?
Shortall creates a convincing and committed portrait of an all-consuming bereavement in its early stages. While I did quite enjoy reading it, and kept turning the pages at any one sitting, the next day I wasn’t exactly pushed to get back to it. Yes, it’s a story with grief as its central theme but at times I found the overall tone too mournful, and the Grace character a little unlikeable, even taking in to consideration the terrible situation she’d found herself in. It’s also written in a style I take issue with that has been creeping in recently, where comedic bits and dialogue are written almost like an astute and detailed description of scenes in a movie, particularly those set in the restaurant where Grace works and involving her best friend Aoife.
The flashbacks to better times didn’t help in building empathy towards Grace either. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to laugh along with the anecdotes, Grace shaming Henry at a dinner party about his awkward attempt to ask her out for the first time for instance, or was it a deliberate bid to put across a couple’s intimate world and in-jokes are theirs alone to get/appreciate/find in any way hysterical. Saying that, Shortall has constructed a unique and sympathetic take on the theme of love and loss, and while it’s by no means perfect would be a nice present for someone to curl up by the fire with this Christmas.