on 5 August 2009
The stifling heat of the English summer of 1976 is a sympathetic backdrop for the melting pot of four newly-graduated friends who move together to a Shropshire village to decide on their futures. Martin, providing the commentary for the novel's events, is a self-doubting poet wannabe, having chosen to study the writings of fictional priest Thomas Exton, with whose anxieties and self-denial he identifies strongly. Caught up in an escalating feud between talented and inspired Jane and the driven but constantly sinning Alex, Martin frets over his own temptations and vulnerabilities while trying to maintain harmony within the ill-fitting group.
In Afterlife O'Brien betrays his poetic background all too often, wandering off into confused introspection for long tracts, and while this may be a literary device to highlight Martin's indecisive, drug-soaked thinking, it makes for agonising reading.
O'Brien's characterisations are a problem. The book's protagonists lack any real solidity and their relationships are jagged and inconsistent. Sometimes believable, sometimes improbable, their interactions are difficult to fathom and are often swamped by impenetrable, profane, arty debate. Even with the death of Jane, for whom Martin harbours a secret devotion, a true sense of devastation is absent, and she is not keenly missed by the reader either. However, the gradual fragmentation of the group as dangerous new characters are introduced as catalysts for the tragic outcome is at least interesting to observe. This, along with the claustrophobic village-setting that feels ever-more suffocating and volatile does something to assuage fears that the whole story is going nowhere.
It is difficult to get away from the feeling that Afterlife tries to be too clever for its own good. It attempts to be an intellectual, art house piece written from the point of view of a frustrated poet mired in academic and personal indecision. The effect of this, though, is to alienate the reader from what comes across as a pretentious exposition of academic over-confidence. There are brief sparks of clarity, but the lack of any definite structure or drama tends to make Afterlife an unsatisfying read.
Finally got round to reading this after receiving it some time ago. I can't say after reading it that it's something I would typically have gone for in hindsight. It is a little difficult to penetrate with it's poetry-focussed prose, and perhaps I'm exposing my true luddite, but I found it a little dull.
Definitely a more "considered" purchase.
One long hot summer in the seventies, four Cambridge graduates head to the country for one last round of enjoyment before the realities of adulthood set in. There's bold, brash Alex- ladies' man, aspiring writer and a bit of a jerk; the weaker-willed Martin, who is content to trail along in Alex's wake even as he hopes to start a PhD on an obscure local poet; Jane, the effortlessly talented yet ethereal poet and Susie, the practical and pragmatic cornerstone of the group. Amidst a haze of drugs and alcohol, deep undercurrents of tension run through the group, but it is only the arrival of a pair of American students that ignites the smouldering resentments.
Right from the very first paragraph, I could tell that Afterlife and I weren't going to get on; with its long, meandering phrases and overabundant literary references, it seemed yet another addition to the pile of books that aim for 'cleverness' at the expense of clarity. Told from the perspective of Martin as he looks back on That One Fateful Summer, the prose is full of rambling internal narrations, but the dialogue sections proved even worse, with it all too often being unclear who was supposed to be saying what.
Nonetheless, I decided to persevere, and after 180 or so pages of long hot days in which the protagonists smoked joints, downed pints and did very little else, the pace began to pick up. Unfortunately, by that point, most of the characters had managed to make themselves as hateful as possible- Alex and his new friends from being complete and utter jerks, and the likes of Martin and Jane simply through being too weak-willed and ineffectual to do anything about it. The only sympathetic characters are Martin's pragmatic girlfriend Susie and pub regular Gareth, but they seem to exist more as plot devices than characters to be developed in their own right.
Fortunately, right at the end, the book does improve a little, and although I wouldn't say it justified having read through the entire thing, at least the final chapter didn't leave me feeling completely unsatisfied. This should only be taken as consolation for those currently working their way through the book, however- if you've yet to crack open the cover of Afterlife, don't bother.
on 1 August 2009
I know nothing about Sean O'Brien other than what is related to us on the cover of this novel. I have never read any of his poetry, although it appears he has some fame for this. The same has to be said, within the confines of ths book, of the fictional poet Thomas Exton, a supposed contemporary of Andrew Marvel and co., who is the missing person from this sad cast of characters. Being a poet O'Brien has written about poetry which might be a mistake for a first novel.
This tale of poets is set largely in the hot summer of 1976 somewhere in the Welsh Marches possibly Herefordshire. It concerns the playing out of an almost inevitable tragedy (which we learn about right that the start, so I am giving nothing away) when a quartet of post-hippies move in together and try to create art.
The narrator is Martin, possibly the saddest of the four, who is in love with the wrong girl (the one that dies) and doesn't seem to have a clue what he wants to do but believes the answer might be in studying the dead poet, Exton. There is the Alpha-male in Alex who is seemingly only in for what he can get for himself. Then there's Susie the nice girl with no personality (Martin's actual girlfriend) and Jane, the talented one who is fatally drawn to Alex, the charismatic one. All this does sound vaguely familiar as is the insertion of the Devil in the form of Diane the nymphomaniac American who decides to muck around with it all.
Also in the cast is Marcie, the wimpish friend of Diane, a couple of weird Germans, some local boys and a bunch of Hell's Angels thrown into the mix, not to mention a perennially pissed Prof. of Lit. All this culminates in a drugfest and a bonfire. I'll leave the reader to guess where that all ends.
Actually, the final ending is a touch of fun but overall this romp of a story swings from deepest introspective misery to high farce as it re-creates the artistic anarchy of Britain in the `70s. As suggested by the book cover, there are hints of McEwan and Amis in this but with nothing like the depth or storytelling ability and with some decidedly stilted dialogue in places. There plenty of bad language, some sex and even opportunities for nudity here, so I suspect it will be made into a film sometime soon. Enjoyable as far as it - mostly predictably - goes but I tend to think that this would-be novelist should stick to being a poet.
I tried this with good intentions but the use of the present tense always puts me right off. I didn't engage with the characters either, finding it all a bit self consciously "edgy" and affected. Much as I liked the nostalgic angle of the novel (which is what first attracted me)I just lost motivation. I feel a debut novel needs more oooomph than this had. Just my opinion, you might like it more than I did. Not my cup of tea.
In the promotional material for this novel it is likened to `The Secret History', which is why I ordered it; sadly it is something of a pale comparison.
Partly due to O' Brien's background as a poet, I was expecting beautiful imagery and flowing prose and was willing to forgive poor plotting and poor characterisation. Instead, the book lacks any kind of focus and at times slips into a very irritating `reviewing' style which is really jarring; an example is when the characters go and see `The Wickerman' (one of the details horn-shoed in so that we remember this is the 1970s.) The narrator tells us; `Although The Wicker Man has somehow ascended to the status of a neglected classic in recent years, in my view (apparently that of a minority) it remains what it always was, a piece of half-arsed crap full of unintended humour and bungled eroticism.' This isn't the only time we have to endure pompous rants which fail to move the plot along or offer any enlightenment about the motivations of the characters. The storyline, too, is predictable and has been written with much more skill by others.
One to miss.
on 25 March 2010
I found this book difficult to read and hard to get into. I'm all for being educated, but not to the extent that I need to keep a dictionary on hand just to get through one page of a novel. To me, not enjoyable and definitely ruined the flow of the book. Perhaps it's worth a second read now that I understand more of the vocabularly, but I wish he had maybe 'dumbed' it down a little and made me feel like I would bother with a second read. Shame.
on 17 August 2011
I'm really surprised to see so many poor reviews of Afterlife on here.
I have to admit, I agree with some of the reviewers who feel it's too wordy. I didn't know O'Brien was a poet when I started the book, but it certainly shows by the time you finish. As someone who tends to speed read, I did have to go back over several pages to find out what had actually happened (maybe not a bad thing!), but I found the story interesting and fairly compelling.
Briefly, it follows the lives of the narrator, Martin, who is studying for a PhD in a rural vilage, and his friends, two of whom are also poets, and is set mainly during the hot summer of 1976. As it's mostly told in retrospect, there is no big twist as to whose 'afterlife' is being discussed, but the means by which the big death comes about is a surprise. This doesn't mean that there aren't twists in the story, as there are certainly some surprises. However, I didn't view this as a suspense novel, and thus this was not really relevant to me. The author's talent lies in creating an atmosphere, and it is really this that is the star of the book, consistently reminding the reader that something awful is eventually going to happen. As others have mentioned, it did remind me of The Secret History, although was not as enjoyable or as compelling. I think my main criticism is that I found it hard to really care about the characters, who were generally quite unlikeable.
Overall, I enjoyed Afterlife. If you want thrills and spills then no, it's not for you. However, O'Brien's command of language and poetry is beautiful, and if you can get through the wordiness, it's worth a look.
So we have the first novel by celebrated poet Sean O'Brien. It's a story about 1970's small town accademics/students and I didn't feel that it quite found its feet. It starts off being exactly how you would expect a poet to write. Lots of intricate well considered phrases, but it just didn't have any narrative punch. When you get to the point of the story that the blurb is about you are already half way through and even then it just doesn't get the point. None of the characters elicited anything involving sympathy from me, in fact most of them were most distastful and I couldn't imagine how they could even managed to spend time together, yet alone live in the same house.
There isn't much of a story in there either. Nothing much happens at the start, then a couple of American women arrive, then the BIG incident in the book happens, then it ends. Most of the 300 pages is spent in discussing the gift of poetry or deciding who is actually leading the group of people, or more simply put navel gazing and sophistry.
To me the whole literary thriller genre just comes across as a bit strange. You take the thriller and pad it out with good writing, or you take a literary book and some page turning action - neither works in my limited experience. It is a well written book, but it is nothing more. It is not a thriller...the whole thing is laid out in front of you in the first chapter, which does kill any suspense at all - you know who dies and you know how, but by the time it happens you just don't care unfortunately.
The trouble with books written by award-winning poets is that although the prose is often stunningly beautiful, the plot is sometimes seemingly treated as being less important. For me, "Afterlife" was a case in point.
One of the major shortcomings of this novel for me was that none of the characters were particularly likeable, and I didn't feel any connection with or sympathy for any of them. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of Martin, a graduate, and follows him and his circle of close friends and those who surround them. All are keen fans of poetry - cue a few passages of prose and, strangely, Bo Diddley lyrics, on the pages - and one cites Ezra Pound as being his hero, but they all seem to be caricatures: a wild American and her subdued friend; an almost psychotic heavy-browed male; a "deep" and troubled poetess...
To cap it all, almost nothing happens. Granted, there are deaths and parties, but most of the time there just seems to be endless bickering separated only by essay writing and poetry. By the time I struggled to the end of this novel I just wanted it to be over and never meet these characters again.
So why two stars instead of one? As I said earlier, there is little doubt that Sean O'Brien can write, and although he frequently seems over-enamoured with the longer words in his thesaurus his sentences are often lovely, if occasionally messy (other reviewers have pointed out some apparent confusion which creeps into some parts of the book) but it appears that his sole focus was on the quality of his language rather than the novel itself.