A ro­mance in re­verse

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - JONATHAN McALOON


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.

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