Genesis Johnson has had a lot to deal with of late. The death of one parent, and possible suicide attempt of the other. The betrayal of a best friend. The shock of discovering that her boyfriend Peter has abandoned her at a Planned Parenthood, whilst she was having an abortion.
Amidst the collapse of her world, Genesis finds hope where she can get it. A visit to New York City, an older man and an off-Broadway play may prove to be just what she needs to get her life back on track…
It’s no surprise that Aftercare Instructions is written in a high emotional key. Genesis is dealing with a series of problems that, individually, would be hard to handle. To have to contend with them all at once would throw anybody into a tailspin.
The problem though, is that the book never takes a breather. There’s no light and shade. Every touch from a boy elicits fireworks. Every friend is one bad decision away from being a heartless betrayer.
And that has two negative effects. Firstly, the fact that everything is always so dramatic means that there’s no room for the drama to ramp up – it’s at one level from the beginning to the end. That leaves moments that should have been huge (the re-emergence of Peter, a suspension from school), to get sucked up into the crazy vortex of Genesis’ life. It lessens their impact.
Secondly, it leaves no room for characters to emerge. The supporting cast never escape their boxes; the protective best friend, the religious boy, the Brooklyn hipster. They are just minor planets orbiting Genesis’ sun. To be fair to author Bonnie Pipkin, this does become a plot point towards the end of the novel, but there’s still less to the characters of Rose, Vanessa and Peter than there should be.
One upside to the constant intensity of Aftercare Instructions is that Pipkin is talented at illustrating a fraught mental state. Genesis describe the stares of curious classmates as ‘those looks that feel like spotlights. You’re blinded, while the onlooker sees you perfectly clear, illuminated’. Her grandmother trying to withhold tears: ‘She’s fighting something. Fighting something in herself that looks like it’s trying to scratch its way out of her, the way she twists and jerks’. The melodramatic style of her book may be too much for some, but it’s clearly a place she feels comfortable, and that shows in some impressive prose.
She also uses a clever device in relaying the back-story to Genesis and Peter’s relationship. Genesis is a budding actress and theatre plays an important part in the novel’s conclusion. Each chapter set in the present day is alternated with a chapter, laid out like a playscript, charting the romance of the young ex-lovers. This fills in some blanks, whilst tying the action together with a fittingly theatrical theme.
Aftercare Instructions is a mixed bag. The unrelenting intensity of feeling does come at the price of characterisation, and yet Pipkin is skilled at writing in that key. Ultimately, it will be down to the individual reader to find out how much emotional frenzy they can tolerate.
Aftercare Instructions was published by Legend Press on 3 May 2018