I watched the old woman smooth down the purple doona. Her words rattled around my head.
Your mother’s bed.
The word ‘mother’ hung in the air.
The old man in the doorway cleared his throat. ‘Here are your bags, Callum.’
Callum? No one – not even Franger, my old principal – called me Callum. I was CJ. CJ Alexander.
I repeated the only word I’d said since they’d picked me up at the Millington train station two hours ago. ‘Thanks.’
‘Right, Patricia, let’s leave him to settle in,’ said the man.
The woman looked me up and down. ‘The wardrobe’s empty,’ she said. ‘So are the drawers. We’ll be in the kitchen.’
‘Thanks…’ What did I call her? Grandma? Gran? Nan? It was all too hard. As I eased the door shut behind them, an ache settled in my chest. I dumped my stuff on the bed and unzipped the duffle bag. The smell of home filled my head, sparking memories.
Callum has come to stay with his grandparents in the small country town of Winter Creek. He’s never met his grandparents and they don’t seem all that happy to see him. He brings with him an overwhelming secret, one that interrupts his sleep and fills his daytime thoughts. He’s angry with his mother for banishing him to the country, to stay with strangers. He’s angry with his grandparents because they seem to want him to be something he isn’t. He’s angry with everyone who comes anywhere near him. But mostly he’s angry with himself. There are so many secrets and they colour every facet of his life. Then he discovers that he has to start at a new school. Can his life get any worse?
The subtitle for ‘After reads ‘What happens when you can’t live with before?’ and the reader is immediately aware that Callum is carrying a big horrible secret so big that he is haunted by it day and night. Short chapters intersperse the After narrative, flashbacks to ‘before’. The reader is as much in the dark as Callum’s newly met grandparents. Callum, despite his terrifying anger, is a sympathetic character and slowly, slowly his story unfolds. Sue Lawson uses first person to keep the reader very close, but also to emphasise the unreliable narrator aspect of this voice. Callum is not the only one with secrets and these secrets impact on the ‘healing’ that his mother hoped would come from his time in her childhood home and home town. The joys and challenges of living in a small rural community are convincingly drawn. There are themes of loss and forgiveness, consequences for actions, but the strongest theme is the damage done by secrets. This is a compelling read for mid-secondary readers and beyond.
After, Sue Lawson
Black Dog Books 2009
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s Author
This title can be purchased online from Fishpond.