Tales of the afterlife and living hells
Insightful observations in impressive collection
‘It would be a perfect hell for even death to be riddled with uncertainty, to be still thinking the same stupid thoughts.” Held hostage in a cell for 100 days and then manhandled into the back of a car, his face pressed to the floor by a foot on his neck, the narrator of Afterlife no longer knows whether he’s alive or dead. The titular story in this enjoyable, independently published collection from journalist Stephen Burgen shows a man unwilling to let go of life even in the bleakest of circumstances.
Elsewhere there are characters who have grown weary of life – a mother grieving for a dead daughter, another exhausted by the demands of autism – and yet more who are trundling through it, aimless and with no control of the reins. Uncertainty is a recurring theme, particularly in relationships. Chance encounters and snap decisions allow characters to connect and part, from a young couple in Avonmouth wanting more from life and each other, to strangers Gloria and Edu in No One Goes to Teruel , who navigate inhospitable Spanish terrain, survive a freak storm and end up at a jamon -cutting competition.
Although living in Spain since 2001, Burgen was born in Canada and there are echoes of his compatriot Alice Munro in some of the stories; a preference for uncomplicated prose and quiet revelations when exploring his characters and their complexities. In Fun , the piano playing of a small boy provokes an awakening in Marion, a thirtysomething New Yorker. Unsure about her partner John, motherhood, and contemplating an affair, Marion taps into a deeper part of herself on a trip to a neighbour’s cabin in the Adirondacks. Shenandoah sees a married military officer in a foreign warzone languish in a hotel room with Gerry, “her little holiday from herself”, as gunfire and explosions rain down outside. Switching between the internal musings of both lovers offers a panoramic view of the tryst, but it jars the narrative at times and cleaner formatting is needed here and in some of the other stories that attempt similar shifts.
For all its contemplation on serious topics – alcoholism, terminal illness and prison, to name but a few – there is plenty of humour. The Street Meeting pokes fun at a group of liberals who are so vehemently anti-establishment that they are stymied when an illegal bar opens at the end of their terrace and keeps the neighbours awake through the night. In Splinter a bombastic professor is put in his place: “Like many academics, Duenas believed his words were not mere words but gilded shards of distilled thought and so, from John’s point of view, he was hard to please.”
Neat endings and unnecessary explanations lessen the impact in a couple of stories, but it is a minor point in an otherwise impressive collection. Packed with insightful observations on human behaviour, Afterlife introduces a range of authentic characters in various stages of transition. Getting her money’s worth on the rollercoaster is pragmatic nurse Paula who points to the heart of the book in the penultimate You Never Know Your Luck : “We all know how the story ends, but it’s the not knowing when that sustains us.”