After You: Letters of Love, and Loss, to a Husband and Father by Natasha McElhone
|After You: Letters of Love, and Loss, to a Husband and Father by Natasha McElhone|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: A year's diary entries as Natascha McElhone reports back to her dead husband on how she is surviving. Heartrending.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 128||Date: July 2010|
What would you do if, without warning, your brilliant, loving, superman partner died from a catastrophic heart event at the untimely age of 43, leaving you with two young boys and a third on the way? Most of us would probably reach for the Valium and book a very long course of counseling. But Natascha McElhone couldn't because she was already stretched, juggling a busy transatlantic career as an actress as well as caring for her sparky young family. Coping as a single parent left no spare time for self-indulgence; within months she had a new baby as well. So she found her own way, grabbing instead at odd moments to write in her well-established diary. These short entries … e-mails, almost … to her dead husband form the basis of 'After You'.
… the point of this writing to you … how it is without you, what you are missing, how I am missing you, to delve into the shadows, to look at the hopelessness I sometimes feel. I don't want to expose the boys to that. This place I find with you might help shelter them from some of the harder blows I feel … Writing this down feels necessary, whatever it is.
In conventional wisdom, pretending the loved one is still at the other end of the computer is probably classed as unhelpful denial, merely fobbing off acceptance of reality, or trying to short-circuit the stages of grief. But I wonder.
Many people report that a close bereavement is like emerging abruptly into a chaotic new world, without the support of the lost partner. By writing to him as if he were still alive, Natascha simulates a semblance of normality and thereby gains temporary respite from the emotional, mental and physical strains of coping by herself in an otherwise exhausting environment. This strikes me as a very natural and healthy form of stress relief.
She examines her husband's vanishing self and finds that it's not just about a physical body that stops working at death and then disappears from sight with complete finality at the funeral service. There's the atmosphere he has created at home with his family, socially with his friends, and at work as an internationally renowned plastic surgeon. At first places like their house are so redolent of Martin that it seems as if he must still be alive. Flashbacks of events, vivid sensory recollections of body and memories of words spoken and written bring solace, and anguish. But however hard she tries to keep him alive in her memory, sensory details fade over the months and eventually disappear from Natascha's consciousness. Gradually, gently, the reflections of shock, anger and denial lead on to acceptance of the future as it is.
She also writes about the practical difficulties, the small triumphs and many setbacks of her new single-parent life. Just as any happily-married couple chat over their days, she tries to set events in context, to express her anxieties and eventually her hopes too. As she endures each of the first year anniversaries, writing becomes an essential way of ordering and processing her thoughts, a strategy for solace and survival.
So, does it have legs as a publishing project?
The writing is immediate rather than measured. It is wholly sincere, and repetitive in its anguish at the loss – inevitably so since virtually all of the text is taken from the original diary entries. This may suit your taste if you are interested in misery memoirs, but clearly it wasn't intended to be 'entertaining' as such. On the other hand, Natascha seems optimistic by nature (or a good actress, mmm, probably both) and her up-beat voice is very endearing. I wish her well.
I was left with a unassuaged thirst about this wonderful man. I would have been interested in some complementary information about his life story, productive professional life and multi-faceted talents and interests. Martin came across as a well-nigh perfect husband and father, which is hardly surprising where the writing is for personal reflection, but maybe is less palatable in a book published for general consumption. A tendency to throw stinky socks into corners would have helped to make him real!
One interesting facet of his life's work is a charity called Facing the World that Martin Kelly and his colleagues founded. You can read about it here or take the word of Martin's eldest son, Theo:
They are a kind, dedicated team of surgeons who will stop at nothing to fix a broken face. Giving up is not an option when not only children's faces are broken but their hearts are broken as well.
Facing the World will receive a percentage of the proceeds, which makes an especially good reason to purchase this book.
My thanks to the publishers for sending After You.
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