Review: Aftershocks by Anne Fine

I have read, or listened to my children reading, many of Anne Fine’s books over the past 20 years, so I was fully aware of her prowess as a creator of absorbing and thoughtful stories. I am certain that Aftershocks, due for publication on 10th February 2022, will only add to her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of fiction for young people. This story deals primarily with grief, and Anne Fine has crafted a story which is gripping, atmospheric, deeply moving and full of wisdom which, at the moment they need it, could be a comforting and enlightening read for anyone of 10 years and above. It is often through fiction that individuals recognise their own or others’ deepest emotions and the publication of Aftershocks could not be better timed, given the dreadful individual and collective loss of lives experienced in the past two years.

The story is set in the fictional Federation, a land quite recognisable in its similarities to our own, with familiar technology and societal structure and is told as a first person narrative by Louie, a boy in his early teens dealing with the loss of his older brother, Toby, and parental separation. When a mix-up in his parents’ diaries results in him accompanying his engineer father to inspect a water pumping station in the remote Endlands, his family’s microcosm of grief becomes absorbed into a far larger trauma. The pumping station lies inland of a high ridge which separates it from the coastal community of the Endlands, populated by a minority group who have been broken and conquered by The Federation years earlier. In the middle of their first night at the industrial building, Louie and the engineering team are lucky to escape with their lives as an earth-splitting earthquake completely destroys the complex. Far worse is to befall the Endlanders, as a tidal wave wreaks destruction on their community. This scenario is brilliantly envisioned from Louie’s mind’s eye as he and the engineers hear the roar of destruction taking place on the far side of the ridge, which protects them from the in-rushing currents.

Events are portrayed with such immediacy and lucidity by Louie’s narrative that the story is utterly gripping and pulls the reader through all of the emotions felt by the protagonist and the characters surrounding him. The aftermath of a community’s collective loss and grief opens up an analysis of his own and his parents’ different ways of dealing with Toby’s sudden death under the wheels of a tearaway teenage driver. Such is the quality of the narrative that we are able to see the protagonists experiencing different stages or manifestations of grief without ever losing the pace and flow of the absorbing story. Thus we feel the mother’s visceral anger, Louie’s aching loneliness and the father’s denial and immersion into work to distract him from his thoughts. So loss and its aftermath have caused a breakup in the family and this is then brilliantly interwoven into the macroscopic bereavement of an entire community.

In creating the Endlanders as an imagined group with a unique set of beliefs, the author is able to examine collective rituals and different understandings of ghosts and lost souls. Louie’s Dad has remained on the coast with engineers and volunteers to help rebuild the infrastructure and Louie rejoins him during his school holiday. There have been reports on the internet of ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the bereft survivors of the tsunami and it doesn’t take long before Louie encounters his first ghost, a young boy drenched in muddy water, leaving a trail of wet footprints before vanishing. The sense of a haunted landscape, crowded with lost souls is vividly rendered and there are scenes set at the pumping station ruins which sent shivers down my spine. As Louie begins to learn of the tradition of Malouy, the necessity of the bereaved to repeatedly tell the story of their lost loved ones to appease their unsettled spirits he finds the courage to talk to his father about the loss of Toby. There are some incredibly moving passages as the logical, scientific, engineer who has always had the ability to fix things, begins to understand that the more spiritual beliefs of others which he had previously dismissed as irrational, are in fact worthy of respect. Further, as Louie completes his understanding of the haunted community he is driven to an ultimate act of courage.

I am astounded by the power of this book. The imagery of loss as an earthquake, shattering all that had been complete and alive; the aftershocks of grief in all its forms; and the tsunami as a flood of emotions and tears which can be as devastating as the initial shock are all perfectly realised. Anne Fine’s writing style is very straightforward but packs a huge emotional punch, so perfectly does she express the inner lives of her characters and highlight the extreme difficulty experienced by some people of talking about bereavement. There is much wisdom packed into this dramatic work of fiction which could open up discussion, and I highly recommend it to all secondary school librarians and Year 6 classroom libraries as well as to anyone working their way through the loss of a loved one. I am certain that this will be a book that I recommend repeatedly in the years to come.

I am most grateful to the publishers Old Barn Books and to publicist Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of Aftershocks in exchange for an honest review.

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