I like to think of myself as having discovered UK author Clare Mackintosh. It’s not true, obviously, but I read her debut novel I Let You Go very early and it was one of my favourite books that year. Indeed, its mid-way shocker was one of the best I’ve ever encountered. I’ve also read and reviewed her subsequent novels, I See You and Let Me Lie, enjoying both because of their twists and her innovative plots.
Interestingly her latest, After the End, is quite different. It immediately reminded me of recent work by Jodi Picoult in that it’s boldly confronting and will have readers questioning preconceived ideas… or certainly challenging our thinking. It’s different from Mackintosh’s previous work but that variety isn’t something I mind. Surely if someone loves writing (and excels at storytelling) then it doesn’t matter what they write?
After the End
by Clare Mackintosh
Published by Sphere
on June 25th 2019
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: General Fiction
ISBN: 075156494X, 9780751564921
Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They're best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands.
For the first time, Max and Pip can't agree. They each want a different future for their son.
What if they could have both?
Just after I started reading this I posted a comment on my Facebook page, noting that it was going to be fraught. Children with cancer. Life and death decisions. Parents under pressure.
I didn’t go into detail there but I could also relate on a personal level. My father had heart problems for much of my life and had a heart transplant in 2000. We spent A LOT of time in hospitals. Then. And later when he developed cancer and required six weeks of daily radiotherapy. And later again when he spent his final six weeks on this earth in hospital and palliative care. My mother spent every day of that time with him and I visited almost every day. We too knew the names of the staff and their various foibles. We too pondered on whether we’d need to invest in long term parking discounts or wondered whether we’d be long gone before the next month ticked over.
And – worst of all – we too probably felt a little jealous of other patients or eye-rolled when someone complained of something minor (“Pfft, a stent? That’s nothing?”). Indeed, to this day I feel bad going to the doctor for something seemingly minor.
So… though I don’t have kids and can’t even imagine what it’s like to have a child with cancer, I could very much relate to the setting in this book and the way one’s life feels as if it’s on hold and how everything else (once also important) pales into oblivion.
Mackintosh realistically captures that time and does ‘tautness’ well. Her other books have been thrillers, so it makes sense she’s good at building that tension. She also offers up great characters.
We meet three sets of parents in the children’s intensive care unit. All very different. Different stories, but the same pressures and it’s something only those there can understand. I liked that Pip pondered on whether they’d have anything in common outside of their child’s illness but their friendships (even intimacy) is fast-tracked in an environment of hyper-vigilance.
And then there’s the lovely Leila. A doctor who’s grappling with a visiting mother and a clash of cultures. Mackintosh does justice to those doctors who care more than they sometimes should. (And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, so it’s great to have her point of view as she juggles professionalism with well… her humanity.)
Of course the book centres around Pip and Max, parents of almost-three year old Dylan. Mackintosh doesn’t sugarcoat their stories. We’re in alternating points of view (along with Leila) so know exactly how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. Their love and strength, as a couple, is an amazing thing. And of course we then see how that can grow or falter when a child’s life, a child’s existence, is at stake.
I thought about what makes a life a life. p 110
There’s no question both parents want what’s best for their son but – ultimately – they have very different ideas on what that is.
I very much enjoyed this and as I said, it’s reminiscent of Picoult’s excellent recent work. It’s challenging for we readers. There’s really no question of morals or ethics. No right or wrong. It’s emotional without being overly sentimental and Mackintosh is a wonderful storyteller.
This book is obviously about parenting but also touches on the ongoing relationship between parents and their adult children as Pip and Max relate to their own parents / mother. As someone who’s more recently fell into a bit of a heap in front of mine I could appreciate the good fortune of having someone with whom I could lay myself bare.
I must admit I found the last part a little confusing and wasn’t exactly sure what was happening. The book carries on… ‘after’ the court case. But the timeframes jumped about a little as did the outcome. It reminded me a little of a book I loved recently (Louis and Louise by the also-innovative Julie Cohen) and I can’t say more than that lest I spoil it, but perhaps I need to go back and re-read it with a less fraught mind.
This would be an excellent bookclub book as it would evoke MUCH discussion. And some debate if you wanted to get into the ‘what would you do?’ dilemma. Of course no one can know what they’d do until faced with the decision. And even then it’s something that is very personal and perhaps beyond explanation.
This is certainly a book (and a story) that will stay with me for some time.
After the End by Clare Mackintosh will be published in Australia by Hachette on 25 June 2019.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.
4 – 4.5 stars