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Collateral damage

July 22, 2007|Heller McAlpin


A Novel

Rachel Seiffert

Pantheon: 328 pp., $24.95

How do ordinary people live with what they do at war? And how do their intimates live with -- or without -- knowledge of these wartime activities? These are some of the questions that impel Rachel Seiffert, the daughter of a German mother and Australian father, born in England in 1971.

Her powerful first novel, "The Dark Room," set in Germany both during World War II and in the decades after, features a new father who becomes obsessed with uncovering his grandfather's role in the mass execution of Russian Jews while a soldier in the Nazi Waffen SS. After confirming his worst fears, the grandson has difficulty reconciling the image of brutal murderer with his beloved Opa -- and feels complicit by his bloodline and boyhood adoration.

In Seiffert's new novel, "Afterwards," set in contemporary England, her heroine is frustrated by the barriers to intimacy erected by her grandfather and her boyfriend. She learns that for both men, remoteness is one of the costs of disturbing military experiences -- her grandfather's in the Royal Air Force during "the Emergency" in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, and her boyfriend's in the British Army during "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

In both novels, Seiffert grapples with complex moral issues concerning war and politically sanctioned killing. Her focus is the enduring traumatizing effects of war on ordinary people -- not just the participants but also their descendants and lovers.

"The Dark Room," which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2001, signaled a serious new talent. "Afterwards" is less dramatic, less moving and less startlingly ambitious. Even so, Seiffert's further explorations of the individual's role in history warrant our attention.

"The Dark Room" was technically three thematically related novellas rather than a unified narrative. "Afterwards" focuses more narrowly on the year Alice Bell and Joseph Mason hook up and how Alice's grandfather's experiences in Kenya and Joseph's lingering post-traumatic stress from his experiences in Northern Ireland come to bear on the relationship.

At 31, Alice, a nurse, has recently lost her beloved grandmother to cancer. She dutifully keeps up her weekly visits to her curmudgeonly grandfather, despite his distant manner. Unexpectedly, when she's not looking for romance, Alice meets Joseph, a plasterer, through friends at a pub. The attraction is fast and mutual. Their relationship progresses, but it certainly isn't based on verbal intimacy. A chatty pair they are not. This is a book -- and a relationship -- with long silences and lots of white space.

Alice, however, does confide that she was the result of a college fling and was raised in part by her grandparents. She also discloses a painful secret about her frustrated attempts to get to know her biological father: After several exchanges of letters, he cut off the correspondence.

Similarly, Alice is frustrated in her attempts to get to know Joseph better. When she asks him to share confidences -- particularly about his military service -- he becomes "uneasy," "resisting" and "cagey." She reflects that "it was strange to feel like she was pushing him, when she'd hardly asked him anything."

This becomes the sticking point in their relationship, and it raises broader questions about how much you need to know -- or have a right to know -- about those closest to you. For Alice, the answer is a lot. Joseph disagrees. He has spent years trying to move beyond his army experience and thinks "Why touch the sore point any more than you have to?"

The situation is exacerbated when Alice learns that her otherwise taciturn grandfather discussed his Air Force days with her grandmother. Lacking that outlet, after her death he begins to tell Joseph about his time in Kenya and then confesses his continued difficulty reconciling his happy memories of meeting his Scottish wife there with the damage and suffering he later realized even his relatively small-scale bombings must have wrought.

Joseph is annoyed by the old man's confidences. "Being let in on someone's secrets. When you haven't been asked," he sneers.

He becomes increasingly angered, and disturbed by the fact that even after "years of it, over and over

you're still no closer to an easy conscience."

He finds himself revisiting -- alarmingly, obsessively -- the incident at an Irish checkpoint in which he shot a man to protect his partner: "

years gone by and still no escaping

It was like his mind got stuck sometimes, turning everything over again to have a closer look."

Seiffert opens her novel with a fragmented, disorienting glimpse of this scene and returns to it repeatedly. The result, while effectively conveying Joseph's tormented conscience, is also somewhat oppressive.

Joseph's sister offers the most pragmatic view of her brother's state of mind. Unlike Alice, she is fine with not knowing specifics: "He was in the army. Chances are, he's done something or seen something done. What kind of person comes away from that with peace of mind?

Far better to know he feels something than nothing."

Understated and offering no easy answers to the dilemmas it raises, "Afterwards" delves into how violence and trauma affect our ability to love. If relevance is what you look for in fiction, you need look no further than the challenges that thousands of soldiers and contractors traumatized by violence in Iraq will confront upon their return home to find pertinence for this thought-provoking novel. •

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