BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Poetic and foul-mouthed, Lament for the Afterlife takes no chances and jumps off the deep end into waters unknown for the better. This mosaic novel takes all the heartache mothered by the strife of war and paints an arresting and unflinching portrait.
PROS: The world has an incredible depth to it and makes even its most odd ideas work; the quality of writing is outstanding; the characters are living, breathing human beings with both their inherent beauty and ugliness of spirit; a spectacular use of the unreliable narrator.
CONS: Its narrative design is disorienting to the point where I had to reread and check my notes on earlier chapters to pry out answers regarding worldbuilding concepts.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s experimental and visionary. You’ll be better for reading.
A brief look into the history of genre fiction reveals war’s significance in the stories we tell to better understand ourselves, for war is as much a fountain of dramatic, exhilarating stories that usher readers to flip through pages as it serves as a stark revelation of what’s the best we are capable of superimposed against the very worst. We’ve seen it done in massive campaigns in fantasy epos first popularized by Tolkien as a staple of epic fantasy and on a much larger scale in the interstellar colonial wars as seen in “Old Man’s War” and other similar titles.
War is plentiful in resources for storytellers. You have immediate conflict to exploit for the purposes of plot and setting, an obvious questioning of morality and ethics when presented to an impossible situation, tragic character backgrounds, high stakes and, of course, heroics – an oversimplification on my part and one done without criticism, because we need stories where we can reconfirm our own humanity through self-sacrifice of the brave and the bold.
However, we also need to expose ourselves to war’s true ugliness as experienced by those uprooted and broken individuals living a warped, grotesque life following armed conflict and surviving as best they can. Lisa L. Hannett tells these stories – of a veteran whose son is drafted too young; of said son who doesn’t become the hero the readers wish so hard he grows into as he asserts himself as a medic; of the women left to fend for themselves when fathers, brothers, husbands and friends have all gone to die on a battlefield against an enemy that’s mythic and incorporeal and unfathomable. Oh, the women and their survival strategies during war times make it a fascinating reading. The callous, cutthroat Ruby, who’s done everything in the book to carve a space for herself in the ruins of local economy; the pragmatic and battle-ready Jean, who knows her way with firearms and knives, but also complements this ferocity with quaint domesticity; the pure-hearted and devoted Mireille, who does everything right and whose one great strength is to stand up no matter how unbearable life becomes – every woman here is a revelation and testament to the unbreakable human spirit.
Lament for the Afterlife is a difficult read on multiple levels and in part, this has to do with how skillfully Hannett portrays the waste of human life as seen in this one passage where Peytr, the novel’s main character, first serves in the medical unit as triage man with Angus for a few days, who until this point was considered the division’s best triage man:
Next morning, Peyt’s paired with a grunt called Willard.
Willard shrugs, buckles straps and helmet, turns vulture. He kicks the stretcher laid on the ground between them. “Which end do you want?”
“Gotta warm up,” Peyt says, then runs around and round the mess tend until the weak has left his legs. The following day, he’s teamed with Barnard. Then Singh. Newcombe. Haas. Tierney. After that, he stops asking their names. Calls them Head or Foot, depending on which end they take. Within a fortnight, he just calls them Foot.
By then, Peytr’s Head by default.
The division’s best triage man.
Another simply has to do with the experimental structure where Hannett targets significant moments in Peytr’s life as he grows older and even more erratic with a mind broken from the time he’s served and living in an ever-oscillating state of self-awareness and a neurotic, near animalistic paranoia and delusion. Given his psychological instability, he joins the tradition of unreliable narrators and very effectively at that where you have to pry apart his delusions and hallucinations from reality as presented in the chapters where other, more grounded characters serve as entry points into the story. The seams between what is true and what only happens in Peyt’s head are not often clear and I find it quite satisfying I’ll never know for sure what has transpired in his life. At the same time, the novel’s greatest strength (apart from its gorgeous writing) serves as its greatest drawback as the text disorients and doesn’t reveal factual truths about the world in any accessible way.
Observant readers will figure out casual references in early chapters when Hannett inhabits the minds of women (when men go to die in wars, it’s women who restart life) who interact with the curious worldbuilding decisions such as Amelia, the skilled maker and dealer of glass marbles, and Inez, the mentalegrapher. At the same time, the finer nuances in terminology and distinctions between words meant as evocative imagery and specific denomination experience perpetual permutations and are hard to pinpoint. Fruitless interrogation of the text on this level might turn away readers who are used to being served such information, but in comparison to everything Lament for the Afterlife accomplishes without giving a single consideration to the status quo, it’s a minor quibble.
Lament for the Afterlife is beautiful, unpleasant, grotesque and outlandish in all the best possible ways and a galvanizing debut from an author who has proved herself time and time again in the short fiction arena.