Friday, May 8, 2009

Rachel Seiffert

Recently I was talking to a friend about the people we knew in college, a time that now is nearly forty years ago. Three of our classmates are full-time literary writers. Perhaps they are not particularly well-known, but they have managed to make creative work their job for life.

The two of us who were reminiscing have both ended up in universities and we were asking each other if we regretted not pursuing the author path, as our three friends had done. "Would we be proud to have published any of the work they have published?" I asked.

And my friend had to say no. But added that one would only have wanted to publish one's own work. This is true, in its way, but on the other hand when I read a novel that excites my admiration, my first instinctive signal of approval is to acknowledge that I would have felt enormously proud if I had written that book myself.

And this is all a kind of preface to explain what I mean by saying that I enjoy imagining how proud Rachel Seiffert must feel of her recent novel, Afterwards, which I finished just a few moments ago. Her subject is gravely important and under-reported, while her style is tense and tight.

There is an old man and a young man who have each served as soldiers in wars where they personally killed people. The central character, Alice, is the granddaughter of the old man and the girlfriend of the young man. She struggles throughout the book to understand the two of them, but they are unable to confide. Yet Alice unintentionally brings the two men into contact, and then between the old man and the young man communication begins to pass. The result is neither healthy nor happy.

Seiffert is brave. And weirdly, restrainedly eloquent in getting across the enormity of the invjuries war inflicts – injuries that extend to the clueless civilians who attempt later on to live with those ex-soldiers, unhealed and unreachable.