220 pages, Ten To Ten Publications
Review by Pat Black
This review’s a bit dark. You might want to skip it if you’re feeling fragile.
We con ourselves about death every day – just about every waking minute, in fact. We have to forget about it, otherwise we wouldn’t get out of bed. I wonder if, as a biological imperative, we have a tiny, deluded wee cranial crawlspace left over from childhood which enables this state of amnesia, allowing us to think it might not happen to us - that natural degradation, illness, accidents and worse are things that befall other people, other families, people you read about in the papers.
Perhaps our only true appreciation of the utter finality of death is if we are in the depths of depression. We will experience death all the way through our lives, from the flushed goldfish all the way up to parents, siblings, partners, and even – god forbid – children. It’s unavoidable. But it’s only when we’re right down there at rock bottom, when getting out of bed isn’t part of our diary for the day, that we might think: Yeah. That’s where it’s headed, alright. That’s the full stop.
Martine McDonagh’s second novel, After Phoenix, examines what happens when sudden, unexpected death brings an immense black shutter down on ordinary lives. It takes a lot of heavy lifting to bring it back up again. You might need some help. Some people never muster the strength, or the assistance.
We follow the Jacobs family. JJ, the father, is a newspaper columnist, while the mother, Katherine, is a drama teacher. They have two children, the high school girl Penny and her six-foot-plus, gangly, daft older brother, Phoenix.
It isn’t a spoiler to let you know that Phoenix isn’t long for this fictional world. A picture is painted of a family getting ready for Christmas 1973. The radio is dominated by Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” as Phoenix returns home from Oxford, looking forward to his long-cherished present – a motorbike.
The period is evoked sparingly – there are nods to the industrial strife, the pop stars, Jackie magazine, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath throughout, but never to the point of obliterating the storyline.
Before 50 pages have gone by, Phoenix is gone. He gets his motorbike. But just as 1974 dawns, the vehicle does for him on an icy road. His neck is broken in a collision and his ill-fitting helmet shatters his skull.
The rest of the book looks at the family’s reaction. Everyone takes it differently: JJ retreats to his garden shed, trying to continue his newspaper columns as a general election looms. Some nights, he takes to unfolding a camp bed and sleeping there. Katherine has a full-on meltdown as she comes to terms with the fact that her rude, louche, gawky son will never again stick his head around her bedroom door when she coughs to get his attention. In JJ’s past enthusiasm for Phoenix’s motorbike project, she sees someone to blame for the disaster. And so a cold war – a winter of discontent - begins at home.
Penny appears to adapt the best to the trauma. Half-term jobs and savings towards a foreign holiday in Franco-ruled Spain with her best friend and her family provide a spark of inspiration for the young girl as she looks to a future without her forever-teasing brother. She still, for all that, has her whole life in front of her.
It’s not as tough a read as it sounds. The silliness and amiable chaos of family life is a strong part of the narrative, even as the remaining trio battle their way through grief. But it’s as good an evocation of the abysmal sting of sudden death as I can remember reading.
The intense suffering of those left behind can be managed, but never quite cured. Grief is something you learn to live with – you don’t ever fix it. One thing you can do with it is to turn it into art. I’ve no idea if McDonagh has had an experience to match the one that befalls poor Phoenix’s family. But I shouldn’t be astonished to learn that she has.
If there is hope after catastrophe, it is in Penny – moving forward, letting go. But after the right amount of time has passed, it can be good to look back, to remember, and maybe even to feel sad every now and then. No-one would want to be completely forgotten.