Larissa Behrendt doesn’t pull any punches in this poignant but difficult examination of family relationships, racism, and the justice system. After Story is a captivating tale about a mother and daughter trying to reconnect after years of tragedy, trauma and secrets have created rifts between them.
Bookworm Jasmine is a lawyer and the first of her family to leave the small country town of Frog Hollow to make it in the big city, desperate to distance herself from the trouble-making reputation of her family. Six months after the funeral of her father, Jasmine invites her mother Della on a literary tour of England as a chance for the two to reconnect. Della, who has never left Frog Hollow and is in the midst of a feud with Jasmine’s sister Leigh-Anne, accepts despite not knowing anything about literature. The two have barely landed in London when the fractures in their relationship start to show, and the news of a young girl going missing on Hampstead Heath begins to open old wounds as Jasmine and Della are forced to deal once more with the loss of Jasmine’s older sister Brittany twenty-five years earlier.
Behrendt breaks down each day of the tour, alternating from Della’s point of view to Jasmine’s. Della’s lack of literary knowledge and experience travelling allows the readers to see England from a new perspective. She compares what she sees and hears to her experiences back home, and as time goes on, begins to question the wisdom of the British as she compares their knowledge and achievements to that of her Indigenous ancestors.
Meanwhile, in Jasmine’s chapters, the younger woman interrogates how the experiences of various authors influenced their work. She compares this to the effect of trauma and the abuse of one of her clients back home, but is still less able to reconcile the impact of past events on her mother. While on one hand she understands, on the other she wishes things were different and struggles to balance her feelings and therefore her expectations of Della.
Behrendt’s characterisation is immaculate. Della and Jasmine’s voices are distinct, their focuses and streams of thought consistent throughout the book even as they grow, making them both easy to understand and relate to. But Behrendt is also careful to balance their views and provides excellent commentary on how our intentions may be perceived differently by those around us. Frequently Della says things that are misinterpreted by her daughter and the rest of the group resulting in her often remaining silent rather than trying to explain herself or her point of view. Likewise, both characters make decisions that they feel are best for each other when in fact it is not at all what the other wants.
The story is held together by a supporting cast of strong, intelligent and insightful women, none of whom are actually present on the tour. Throughout their travels, Jasmine and Della frequently compare themselves to and fall back on the knowledge of their relatives Aunty Elaine, Aunt Kiki, Mum Nancy and Leigh-Anne. In addition, Behrendt makes good use of the other tour participants who range in age and world-views and who are seemingly at odds with one another the whole time. This constant clash of ideas and judgements feels true of real life, and the first-person narration is oddly comforting in the sense that both struggle to sort through the noise and find their own identity amongst it all.
There are too many wonderful things to say about this book. The use of the literary tour as the grounding device for Jasmine and Della’s respective journey’s is perfect for booklovers. The story is heartfelt, respectful and nuanced, and the characters are relatable. This might very well be my favourite book of 2021. I can’t recommend it highly enough.