Martine McDonagh’s After Phoenix, set in Bristol, was a weird one. It’s rated quite highly on Goodreads but, overall, I wasn’t phenomenally won over by it.
In the first chapter we meet Phoenix, a normal teenage boy, son of normal middle-class parents Katherine and JJ and brother of normal anxiety-riddled teenager Penny. He is home for the Christmas holidays from Oxford University and the family is hosting a New Year’s party for friends and family. Phoenix wanders from room to room narrating his scorn for his family as well as his desire to lose his virginity with any girl he can lay his hands on. Like I say, normal.
Twenty pages later, Phoenix is dead – squashed flat in an accident on his new motorbike. And that’s that.
For the remainder of the novella, Penny, JJ and Katherine must come to terms with their loss and rebuild their lives which now, just like the narrative, lack a centre. JJ retires to the garden shed almost full time; Katherine, who blames JJ for their son’s death, has a mental breakdown and checks herself into an institution; Penny battles with her exasperation at her parents’ dysfunctionality while concentrating on growing up, falling in and out of friendships and searching for new experiences wherever she can, even going on holiday without her parents noticing.
With Katherine in the institution, JJ in the garden shed and penny taking responsibility for the upkeep and tidiness of the house, this is a novel that concerns itself with nesting. Each of them must separately redefine the space around them now that it feels so much emptier, gradually learning to “conform to the behaviour of the majority” (119) and get back to the ‘normal’ they once exemplified.
Their behaviour is interesting to witness and the novel seems to comment on the British respect for normality, conformity and mundanity. The expectation seems to be that Britons must strive for reason and moderation in all things, even reactions to the sudden death of a loved one.
So, interesting? Yes.
Engaging? To a mild extent.
But does it inspire passion within me to rave and rant about it? No.
McDonagh writes simply and bluntly about very real-seeming family grief. There’s nothing substantially wrong with it, it’s just not my cup of tea. 2/5 stars.
Next time I’ll be reviewing Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching. It’s turning a little bit ghostly…