by Claire Tristram
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
208 pages, 2004
Reviewed by David Abrams
Claire Tristram's debut novel, After, looks like a thin, soft whisper of a book: a small-format hardback with only 194 pages of spare, lean prose. Even the dustjacket is barely-there: a soft-focus photograph of a woman's naked torso.
Don't be fooled. After is a powerful time bomb ticking in your hands, a chronicle of grief, adultery and redemption that can rip through you with shattering impact. You probably won't even see it coming until you've finished the book and start thinking about Tristram's careful choice of words: the ones she wrote as well as the ones she left off the page.
Hemingway once told Max Perkins, "I never use a word if I can avoid it, but if I must have it I know it." I've no idea if Tristram is a fan of Papa H., but she certainly employs his style of boiled-down writing. In After, not a word is wasted.
Not even on character names. The story takes place in the space of 24 hours at a nondescript hotel along the Pacific coast where a nameless woman has a rendezvous with a Muslim man she has chosen to be her lover for a day. The two have sex, eat dinner, have more sex and do a lot of talking. That's the plot in a nutshell.
But After is not primarily concerned with plot; it's about the complexities of what takes place in those white spaces between the lines on the page.
The woman is a widow whose Jewish husband met a well-publicized death at the hands of Muslim extremists a year earlier. Her decision to take a Muslim lover may be odd and disconcerting, but this is just one of the emotional earthquakes which jolt the reader as we watch the woman work through her loss.
She really knew nothing at all about the man who was coming to meet her. Nothing. He had the face you might see these days in the pages of any newspaper. The deep-set eyes. The youthful, fawn-colored skin. The skin of a martyr.
We learn the man is happily married with two daughters on the honor roll. Lately (since 9/11, though that date remains unspoken), he's been living his life carefully, apologetically. While initially attracted to the woman by her beauty, he soon comes to believe she can play a part in his redemption, or he in hers. "He felt himself brushed with the darkness of her grief, which seemed to curl into his mouth like old smoke that he wanted to expel."
From the very first sentence, we know this will be a book about escape: "As the first anniversary of her husband's death drew near it became clear to her that she needed to get away." She's evading the painful images of her husband's murder -- repeatedly televised in the immediate aftermath of his death and sure to be resurrected with the one-year anniversary -- but she's also running away from her own identity (who her family and friends think she is, who her husband thought she was, the woman she always pictured herself as). This is perhaps one reason Tristram never gives her a name: the author has already started the process of stripping away identity, which the character must now finish with her actions over these 24 hours. I get the feeling that she stood in her husband's shadow, drawing most of her self-image from him. Now that he's gone, she's been left rudderless. Once sorrow has emptied her out, she has a hunger to be refilled. In this case, sex is the banquet she must gobble down in a day-long gorge.
Day by day, month after month, without her attending to it, her grief had subtly changed its shape, until what was left was not quite grief at all, but something she could only describe as desire. She ate with her fingers. She slept naked. Grocery boys aroused her.
At times reminiscent of the movies The Lover and Nine 1/2 Weeks, the novel treats intercourse -- in all its many varieties -- as an integral part of the story. Tristram writes sex scenes that are at once frank and steamy, yet also coolly detached with body parts serving as metaphor.
He traced the curve from her chin to her neck, then ran his fingertips over her collarbone. He wanted to explore and catalogue her textures and valleys. He felt more cartographer than lover.
Similarly, Tristram maps our route through the complexities of grief and the need to move on with life after loss. Throughout the book, she maintains knife-edge suspense -- not about whether someone lives or dies, but how they heal and survive the raw wounds of bereavement. After reading After, you'll have a hard time shaking the haunting effects of the book. What looks like a whisper is really a cathartic, primordial scream. | June 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.