After the success of her first novel, I Have Waited, and You Have Come, a troubling account of the impact of rising sea levels on a northern English county, author Martine McDonagh (who, by the by, once managed legendary Manchester band James) has gone back in time to the England of early 1974 in After Phoenix, a heart-warming tale of family unity and the conquering of grief.
Phoenix is a student with a penchant for his sister’s best friend and motorbikes. The latter leads to his untimely demise early in the book and allows us to study the individual responses of mum Katherine, dad JJ and sister Penny. Though this backdrop may sound a little grim, the tale that unfolds is unexpectedly endearing. In addition, through the filter of McDonagh’s subtle and unobtrusive writing, the stylistic consequence is a lightness of touch which makes us feel like we are floating above each character, while the agony and melodrama we associate with grief is gently absorbed by a soft pillow of humour and mundane observation.
Throughout the book, McDonagh never presses for our attention, instead seducing us with a certain tranquillity, so that arresting spikes of description make their mark: McDonagh is an author who whispers rather than berates. As she herself says, “I tend to give information on a need-to-know basis”. It’s an approach that seems to work.
The inspiration behind After Phoenix lies in real-life events. “I started to write it very soon after completing my first novel and a few months after the death of my father, so it was inspired and informed by both events,” she explained to me. “I wanted to write something completely different to my first novel that would stretch me as a writer and also honour my dad’s life in some way.”
The book draws on her experience of growing up as a young teenager in 1970s’ Bristol within the grounds of a psychiatric hospital where a small community of staff, including her father, lived. This was, of course, a time of notable social unrest in England yet, like the sense of grief which hums along at a low vibration level, we are not left branded by the ills of a nation limping to the tune of strikes and the three-day week. Instead, McDonagh’s political references add a restrained realism, wryly observed in the zealous socialism of JJ, a Panorama-watching columnist for the Bristol Evening Post, who writes in the garden shed and relishes philosophical/adversarial discussion with his less dogmatic drama teacher partner Katherine, much to his children’s chagrin.
We are, however, surreptitiously enveloped with a comforting sense of 70s’ domestic nostalgia, as defined by the stackable record player, candlewick bedspreads, Crossroads and the arguably less ubiquitous Purple Spaceships Over Yatton by legendary Bristolian prog-rockers, Stackridge. Discord comes in the shape of Katherine’s rejection of JJ and his self-imposed confinement to the garden shed, where he continues to write his column while growing a substantial beard. Unable to cope with her own grief, and JJ’s compensatory over-attentiveness, Katherine admits herself to Barrow, the local psychiatric hospital, where she meets an interesting array of characters. Penny, brave and intuitive, tries to get on with things and goes to Spain with her best friend Jackie, who, as we discover, was Phoenix’s first and last conquest in the sphere of conjugal relations.
The story is written in the third person and progresses by periodically switching between each character, giving us time to develop and apportion empathy. It’s a book which, while reading, I envisaged being on the stage. “I’d love it to be a play or a film,” says McDonagh in response to this. “My first real attempts at writing at length were plays and screenplays and I think that probably shows in the way I write.” Certainly, her portrayal of a grief where we are apt to curtail our interactions as we reach inside to partake in a host of inconclusive monologues on the nature of life and death, usually within a framework of debilitating anguish, rings true, particularly in the character of Katherine.
But After Phoenix is never grim. Instead, it gently lifts this suburban family – and the reader with them – out of mourning, and returns them to the more familiar feelings and routine of everyday life.
Review by Matthew Graham
Martine McDonagh is working on her third novel.