After by Claire Tristram

A harrowing, enigmatic tale that practically begs for a repeat reading

Given its slimness, I thought there might not be much to After, the 194-page debut novel from journalist Claire Tristram, who covers politics, science, and culture for such publications as the New York Times and Salon.com. But I was wrong.

It took me only a few hours to read Tristram's spare, harrowing narrative, but once I finished, After lingered like a nightmare, particularly since current events -- the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Berg beheading -- grimly echo the book's story. It recounts a single day in the lives of two people: a grieving widow whose Jewish activist husband was killed one year before by Muslim extremists, and the married Muslim man she's chosen as her first lover since her husband's death. In a 24-hour period, their affair veers from tentative to tender to brutal, with the politics of their pasts lending horrifying connotations to their coupling.

In the end the violence is redemptive for one of the lovers and shattering for the other, as well as for the reader, who's left with painful questions about prejudice, nationalism, and the tendency of human beings to dehumanize one another. Why did the widow choose a partner from the same culture that destroyed her beloved mate? What did she hope to gain by having such a man in her power? Does bloodshed ever heal as it hurts? Tristram answers these queries with an enigmatic tale that practically begs for a second or third slow reading. I'm not sure I even liked the book. But I damned sure won't forget it.
-- Joyce Slaton

 
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