Released: July 2014
I’ll admit it, I knew very little about After I Left You when I picked it up to read. Before turning the first page, all I knew was what the synopsis told me. Anna, our protagonist, is a girl who left university with a degree and bad blood, suffering the sting of betrayal and nursing a broken heart. Almost twenty years later, ‘a chance meeting on a rainy day’ would bring all that best-forgotten history back into the present, destroying the distance she’d put between herself and the people she knew back then.
Whilst knowing little about the novel definitely helped build the intrigue, it also meant I didn’t know what to expect and I found I was a little disappointed in the framing story. The novel adopts a dual narrative approach that opens in 2011 with a 38-year-old Anna hiding out in a supermarket to avoid the rain when she runs into someone she hasn’t spoken to since she left university seventeen years ago…and it’s not too difficult to guess who that person is.
For the first couple of chapters, Alison Mercer does a good job of merging Anna’s two worlds, her past and her present, albeit in slightly clichéd ways: Anna’s history haunts her in dreams of old Oxford buildings and the distorted images of the people she once knew that shocks her into waking.
Despite its relative familiarity, the novel does manage to craft a beautiful mystery that’s a pleasure to see unfold. The problem with these revelations though is that they mainly appear in the second narrative that flashes back to Anna’s university life and it was this strand of the story that I found the most interesting. There could be any number of reasons why this narrative appealed to me the most.
Call it generational relevance, if you will, or the fact that I’ve only recently left university myself, but I find that it’s so much more enjoyable to meet characters and watch their development as the story progresses, rather than being told how we should be interpreting their behaviour.
Nevertheless, Alison Mercer does a brilliant job of unravelling the story towards how we know it will end up. Watching everything click into place is always an incredible joy when reading this kind of novel and Mercer managed to set everything up so that even at the eleventh hour when I thought I’d had the entire story sussed a new revelation left me reeling.
The writing was engaging, even if the characters in their older carnations felt a little bit flat and the ending was quite abrupt. It was a shame really, once we’d been introduced to eighteen-year-old Anna, a bright if naïve girl ready to enter a new stage of her life, to return to the older Anna whose life seems to be at a stand still, and whose character doesn’t seem to have grown up too much. Anyone who is so fixed on the past, like Anna is, will inevitably miss out on the present, which is only too obvious in this novel.
I did enjoy After I Left You – I feel like I should clarify that – but above everything else I believe that Mercer had a strong story in the first place by placing Anna in the middle of Oxford, with all the history, people and behaviours that such an institution attracts. For me, the later years can basically be summed up to Anna trying to let these people back in to her life after what happened and the reader misses out on that joy of discovery, of new relationships and of drawing their own conclusions.