A romance in reverse
GRACEAFTERHENRY EITHNE SHORTALL Corvus, 432pp, £12.99
Last year, Sunday Times arts writer Eithne Shortall’s debut novel became a bestseller. Love in Row 27 was about matchmaking in Heathrow, and was optioned by the production company of Made in Chelsea and Downton Abbey. Grace After Henry, Shortall’s second book, is written in a similarly light and comedic mode, but is essentially a romance in reverse. A lot of it takes place in a graveyard, and the action unfolds after the love interest is dead.
While Grace McDonnell is house hunting in Dublin, her boyfriend Henry Walsh is involved in a road accident. The scarf Grace knitted him unravels and is caught in the spokes of his bike, dragging him under a truck. Grace moves into the house they had both wanted – “our house”, as she calls it – and imagines all the things she could have done which would have meant he was nowhere near that truck.
She is helped along her path to recovery by three other bereaved people she befriends at Glasnevin Cemetery. Known as the “Three Wise Men,” they go there “every Wednesday and Saturday and whenever else they got lonely, or bored”. They resent “fair-weather mourners” who come only on sunny weekends. Shortall is good at making these sad figures in a rather morbid setting very much alive.
The Three Wise Men are also familiar with a psychological trick Grace is experiencing: she thinks she sees her dead partner everywhere. In shops, in the restaurant at which she is a chef, in the graveyard. Then, one day, a plumber who resembles Henry almost identically pays her a visit. The strangeness is well set up.
“This man, Andy, took a reluctant sip of his tea with Henry’s mouth and placed the cup back on the table with Henry’s hand.” Andy is an Australian come to Ireland to find out about his biological mother, who had given birth at a mother and baby home. He had a twin brother, also given up for adoption. It turns out it might not have been madness – seeing Henry all over Dublin.
Grace and Andy strike up an uneasy friendship. She “liked being around Andy because it reminded me Henry had existed but it also allowed me to forget he was gone”. But Andy has his own agenda, we learn from chunks of his own narrative. He is desperate for a family. Like Grace, he imagines ways in which he could have saved Henry. If he had met him, perhaps he would have been visiting him in Australia that day.
Inevitably, Grace begins to fall for Andy because of his own qualities rather than his resemblance to Henry. And as she gets used to him, the flashbacks about Henry that punctuate the narrative begin to reveal more shade to their sparkling relationship: the arguments; the imbalances of responsibility. Basically the reality of relationships rather than what we choose nostalgically to remember.
The novel gets more uneasy, and more interesting, as Andy pursues Henry’s family, and they begin to want a piece of him in the same way Grace originally had. Through this, she is made aware of the creepiness of the whole thing. At the same time, though, she finds new arguments to justify becoming seriously involved with Andy.
Grace After Henry can be very funny in an infectious sort of way. Characters are invoked in broad strokes. Busybody neighbour Betty is close to caricature but thoroughly satisfying. She has framed photographs of “Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy and a man I presumed to be her husband”. She blames Grace and the blonde TV presenter when she doesn’t win at telly bingo. (“Imagine paying full price for that skirt and only getting half of it.”)
Yet the central story gives rise to contradictory feelings. Because of the strangeness – the dilemma of whether or not to shack up with your dead partner’s long-lost twin because he does and does not resemble him in a convenient mix – it feels slightly unsuited to the convention of breezy, cozy romcom. The concept feels perfect for a dark, psychological literary mystery about the nature of obsession à la John Banville. But that, of course, is to criticise a book for what it isn’t rather than what it is. The other side is that it’s pleasing to see romantic comedy about such knotty psychological situations. And a slightly uncomfortable story is always, in whatever genre, more rewarding than a comfortable story. Though whether it will be optioned by Downton Abbey’s production company is another matter altogether.
Eithne Shortall: Grace After Henry can be very funny in an infectious sort of way.