Pop songs and celebrities have cheapened the way we forgive. Like love, forgiveness is easily made, almost without care it seems. “I forgave my ex.” “Forgive and forget.” “The power of forgiveness.” Everyone’s doing it – but do we really understand what it means? And do we ever ask ourselves why we should? After Before may provide an answer.
I love Jemma Wayne’s debut novel. She brings together three very powerful characters stultified by events of the past. Emily, who I very carefully say is the protagonist given that Vera and Lynn – the other two leads – are equally potent, is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Now living in London, she becomes the carer of Lynn who is terminally ill with cancer. Then there’s Vera, an unlikely contemporary character given the fact she is a born again Christian, surely the fiction equivalent of box office poison. However it is the way Jemma handles Vera’s internal conflicts and her search for redemption that offers great insight into the reason why people are drawn to religion in the first place. And also why we must learn to forgive.
Despite the characters’ frailties, After Before is a celebration of human strength, skilfully handled with an almost microscopic precision, an understanding of the foibles each character face. These are not easy lives. We think of a person’s battles in terms of divorce, family disagreements, financial problems – imagine if your demons involved atrocities such as murder and rape? Or if you did something so despicable that it infected every waking moment of your day? Or if, very simply, you hadn’t fulfilled your dreams? Would you forgive your perpetrators? Would you forgive yourself?
It’s big stuff. When the inevitable scenes of Emily’s pain are revealed, a pain so brutal that if you could look away you would, we are so involved in her plight that we want to help her, and we do so by reading her story. I often wonder if ‘fiction’ is too glib a term. You could study a thousand essays on the conflict in Rwanda but nothing would compare to Emily’s story whether real or not. That’s what good author’s do. They provide the emotional intelligence to the everyday world even when that everyday world is inhumane.