“It’s funny really, when you think about it, all the lessons I’ve learnt about life by virtue of being dead.” (4.5 stars)
Source- review copy
Published by Penguin Books, released on 13th February 2014
I read the Kindle edition. The paperback is 435 pages.
Jeez. I read most of this book with a lump in my throat, perilously close to tears. Despite the books title and its sad-sounding premise, I hadn’t expected it to be quite the poignant story it was, which was a real surprise. I fell utterly in love with all of the characters and I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to them when I finished it. Judging by this stellar debut, Hannah Beckerman is a bright new talent in fiction and I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
An undiagnosed heart condition suddenly takes Rachel away from her beloved husband Max and six-year-old daughter Ellie. Now inexplicably caught in the afterworld, she is able to watch her family, unable to let go of them as they themselves cannot let go of their own grief. With a sense of helplessness, she moves through the seven stages of grief and witnesses her husband start dating again and watches her daughter warm to the new woman in their life. Everything is moving on without her, but sometimes the thing that breaks her heart, may actually turn out to be the best thing for everyone…
When I started this book, I did wonder if it was going to work. The notion of Rachel ‘watching over’ her loved ones is a notion that has been done to death in fiction and film, after all. I was prepared for something a bit cringey if I’m honest, yet a few pages in, I knew that this was going to be a fabulous read. The reason? The strong characterisation and the very real way that grief is depicted therein. It was a look at death from a unique perspective and Rachel’s narrative was so imminently moving that I was pulled straight into the storyline. Also, death (or at least the afterworld) within this book isn’t paradise; it is bleak, it is lonely and Rachel is isolated and having to witness things about her former life from a distance, which was heartbreaking. The reader ascertains that she will not be able to move on to a better place until she gains some kind of peace, though with current circumstances, that doesn’t look likely. You feel her fear, her loneliness and most of all her sense of helplessness that she cannot offer comfort to Max and Ellie, who were her entire world. Imagine watching those you love suffering and not being able to do anything about it? To know that they are suffering because you are gone must be so much worse.
As I’ve said, I loved all of the characters in this book. My heart truly bled for Max. A wonderful husband and father who has suffered such a shocking, unexpected bereavement. To be a widower at any age is devastating, but to be left alone to raise a young child is doubly devastating. You could clearly envisage the strong bond that he and Rachel had, to know that they had all these plans together for their life and that they had inexplicably been taken away, was gut-wrenching. After Rachel’s death, Ellie becomes the sole focus of his world and it is only for her that he keeps going. Well meaning friends and relatives offer their support but deep down unless someone has experienced a similar bereavement, they cannot know how it feels to lose a spouse. When Max starts to want to live again he then considers how he will be judged; how soon is too soon to begin a new relationship? I admired Max and his capacity as a father and that for love. He knew he would always love Rachel but also understood that he still had to keep on living, which was where Eve came in.
At first, like Rachel herself, I genuinely wasn’t sure about Eve and whether or not she had ulterior motives as she seemed a bit too keen to ingratiate herself into Max and Ellie’s life, in what in my opinion, did seem too soon. This was a clever device used by the author, as by the time you begin to like Eve as a reader and understand where she is coming from, Rachel herself has, too. Imagine the compassion it must take for someone to come into a ready made family unit and be thoroughly generous and willing to take on all of their problems and emotions when they themselves still feel a sense of guilt and are grieving for what they have lost; they feel guilt when they are still alive and someone so very special to them has gone. Eve was loving, patient and above all else, willingly able to shoulder Max and Ellie’s emotions. Not only that, she actively encouraged them to talk about Rachel and share in their memories. I think it takes a very special kind of person to do that and I for one, am not sure if I myself would have that kind of strength and selflessness. I think in an alternate universe, Rachel and Eve could have genuinely been friends. Eve too, had her secrets, which made me feel sympathy for her. She may be outwardly beautiful and seemingly have everything, but deep down she too has suffered.
Ellie was my absolute favourite character in the book- such a special, wonderful little girl. I sometimes find children in fiction to be unnecessarily twee, even irritating, but she was none of those things. Whilst distraught at the loss of her mum at such a young age, she was nevertheless precocious, confident and polite. I adored the relationship between her and Max, who became her world. When Eve came onto the scene, Ellie’s understandable distrust and jealousy was realistically depicted- she felt such a believable character and the person most fearful of losing her memories of Rachel. The author did a great job of showing the impact an ‘interloper’ had on the dynamics between her and her dad.
The secondary characters too, were exceptionally drawn, from Max’s mother and father to Rachel’s own widowed mother. You get to know her best friend Harriet and her brother-in-law, Connor, all of whom had their own very important connections with Rachel. As a result of this, Rachel’s legacy is a very distinctive one. Not only does she have her beautiful daughter, so like her in so many ways, but she has imparted strong memories and friendships that have been imprinted on all those around her, which is why so many people miss her deeply. Rachel worries that she will be forgotten, which to her is the worst thing possible, when in actual fact there is no danger of that; she has left a lasting impact in the world. If only we could all be so certain that we would leave such tangible memories behind us when we are gone.
I think for me, the only downside of this novel is that I did find myself somewhat frustrated with some of the hypocrisy that seemed to go on amongst some of its characters. Poor Max had been actively encouraged to try and get out more and meet new people, then once he did, his friends and family turned on him and Eve. Whilst this may be true to life as people struggle to come to terms with such significant changes, I did feel that this aspect was somewhat repetitive in parts- the point was belaboured a bit too much. I also felt that Rachel was just portrayed as TOO perfect a wife, mother and daughter. It’s very easy to glorify the dead of course, but surely she must have had some flaws? I was literally just waiting for her to be canonised as a saint…
Though certainly not for anyone who is themselves recently bereaved (for the subject matter may be too close to home), poignant and thought-provoking, this stunning debut is sure to appeal to fans of Rosamund Lupton, Charity Norman and Alice Sebold. It is a vivid story of family, love and loss and is a novel I am sure I will revisit again in future. Highly, highly recommended.