Lupton has a near-perfect grasp of human relationships. In Afterwards, terrible tragedy tests the boundaries of a motherís love and our ideas of the possible when confronted by grievous loss. When happily married Grace Covey realizes that her childrenís school is in flames, she searches desperately for her eight-year-old son, Adam, who is safely outside. Then she realizes that seventeen-year-old Jennifer may be trapped on the third floor and rushes blindly into the building: ďAnd then I was running at the velocity of a scream.Ē On the stairs, unable to see or breathe, Grace connects with her daughter as the roof falls in, black smoke billowing in the sky as fire engines jockey around panicked parentsí parked cars to get near the building.
When next we meet Grace and Jennifer, they exist in an altered state where Grace is in the operating room and Jennifer is swathed in bandages in ICU, her face swollen and raw. Mother and daughter realize that they can communicate with one another but not with their loved ones or those they see working over their damaged bodies. There-but-not-there, Grace and Jennifer watch the drama unfolding, their fates still uncertain. From this unique perspective, Luptonís profoundly moving novel offers insight into the tragedy, the investigation, and the reactions of loved onesóespecially Graceís husband, Mike, a journalist for the BBC and Mikeís sister, a policewoman.
Events spiral from the aftermath of tragedy to the lengthy vigil for Grace to awaken from a coma and the lab results of Jenniferís injuries, whether she will be scarred permanently or not. Mike is devastated, unable to go to his son for fear of leaving Grace. As the police determine that the fire was arson, the most unlikely person is suspected of setting the blaze. In the aftermath of the chaos and confusion and in her altered state, Grace has time to think about the fire and compile her own list of suspects, monitoring the doctorís conversations with Mike regarding his wife and daughter and listening to detectives as they posit scenarios and suspects. Jennifer listens in with Grace but is sometimes overwhelmed and escapes to an indoor garden area, while Grace eavesdrops on important but troubling conversations. Rather than feel like a device, Grace and Jenniferís ability to watch and listen brings an otherworldly quality to the story, a sense of the patientsí spirits in transitionónot just trapped, immobilized in their bodies.
Some of the most touching moments lie in Graceís reminiscences about Mike and their happy years together, her regrets at not having valued her sister-in-law for the loyal friend she proves to be, and her compassion for her best friend, who has kept dark secrets over the years while putting on a brave front to the world. The characters are multi-dimensional, from a male teacher who values Adamís qualities but loses his job to Jenniferís schoolmate, the daughter of Graceís best friend. More disturbing is Graceís certainty that someone is still trying to harm Jennifer.
This volatile plot unleashes a range of human emotions, from the deepest bonds of a motherís love to an idyllic marriage and family destroyed by senseless tragedy. There are villains and decoys, those who lie to the police to protect themselves and those who investigate in good faith, among them a cold-blooded killer who hasnít finished sowing destruction in the community. Lupton captures it all in searing tale that is impossible to put down, and then only with regret. ďThere is no happy ending. But there is an afterwards.Ē