Last year, I read Charity Norman’s The Son-in-Law and it turned out to be one of my favourite books of the year so I’ve been working my way through her other novels. Unfortunately, none of the other books have even come close to capturing the emotional intensity of The Son-in-Law, although After The Fall comes quite close.
When her husband, a depressive alcoholic, loses his business, Martha realises she is in danger of losing everything so she makes the drastic decision to emigrate to New Zealand. As an occupational therapist, Martha secures employment easily enough and her steady income allows her husband, Kit, to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. The only fly in the ointment is Martha’s teenage daughter, Sacha, who bitterly resents being taken away from her friends and the rest of the family.
As the McNamaras settle into their home in the remote town of Napier, things seem to be going well despite the strangeness of being in a new country and even the sullen Sacha seems to be making new friends. However, as the months go by, it becomes clear Martha is fooling herself about how well her family are adjusting and reality comes crashing down when one of her twin sons is seriously injured.
After The Fall begins with Martha in the hospital desperately waiting for news about the condition of four-year-old, Finn, although we aren’t told the sequence of events leading up to the accident until near the end of the story. The chapters dealing with the hospital are interspersed with Martha’s flashbacks to their life in England and their early months in New Zealand, with the story unfolding gradually. The family are pretty ordinary with likeable characters with whom you can easily identify, even Sacha, the only one emigrating against her will. Much of the early chapters deal with the family growing accustomed to their new surroundings and getting to know their neighbours, with much of the setting being described as a paradise in comparison to poor old, rainy England. However, every paradise has its dark side and the author sows the seeds of doubt with plenty imagery of snakes invading Eden which is a bit clumsily done.
Since we already know about Finn’s accident, the earlier events in New Zealand inevitably lead towards the moment itself, and although we have been deliberately led into suspecting one character in particular, it becomes increasingly clear something else is going on. Finn’s numerous bruises lead to the involvement of social services and Martha becomes increasingly distressed but not for the reasons you would assume. Initially, Martha appears to be at a loss to explain Finn’s injuries and while she protests her innocence, we eventually learn she is covering up for someone.
The threads unravel at a slow pace and since Martha’s the narrator, the truth is supposed to come as much of a shock to the reader as it does to her but I’m afraid the changes in Sacha are all too obvious. Martha and Kit handle Sacha’s drug problem horribly but it comes as no surprise since they are already burying their heads in the sand about Kit’s drinking problem. They seem to be very much of the belief that if you ignore something long enough, it will go away by itself. The extent of the drug problem in New Zealand makes for sober reading and is sadly based on fact, but everything is resolved far too neatly for it to make any sort of an impact.