It was the end of the world; it was an ordinary day. This was a lesson I should have learned ten years ago, when Peter died. The worst thing in the world can happen, but the next day the sun will come up. And you will eat your toast. And you will drink your tea. [loc. 2902]
Naomi Ash lives with her mother in the small, weird town of Train Line. Naomi is a medium; so is her mother, who has a radio show; so, in different disciplines, are many other inhabitants of Train Line. None of them are portrayed as frauds: that is, some deceptions are practiced, but only to enhance the impact of the genuine article. Naomi's glimpses into the spirit world, the voices she channels, the séances she runs with her mother -- all are recounted as simple, straightforward, mundane. Talking to and speaking for the dead is just another job.
After Life begins with her burying a body: the very first line is "First I had to get his body into the boat." The rest of the novel tells us how that person came to die, how Naomi is haunted (clue: not in the obvious way, given the premise of the novel) and how -- ten years later -- the discovery of human bones changes Naomi's life. The spectrum of guilt and innocence is explored, as is the nature of justice. Another theme is mothers and daughters: the dysfunctional relationship between Naomi and her mother, and the love between Naomi and Vivian, the child she babysits. Love is present in many forms: Ellis has an uncomfortable knack for isolating the little details that demonstrate how Naomi -- desperate to be loved -- fails to love herself.
I was most fascinated, though, by the ramifications of Naomi's cozy relationship with the dead. "I wasn’t afraid of my grandparents, who came to me occasionally with kind if vague words" [loc. 645]". Naomi's father was married to somebody else, and isn't in their lives: Naomi pities her mother, who'd have found it easier if he was dead, because "she had special access to the dead" [loc. 246]. When Naomi thinks of her own death, she takes it for granted that she (or her spirit) will come back to attend her mother's séances.
The everyday eerieness of life in Train Line reminded me of Tana French's novels, though the supernatural is more explicitly present -- or at least more generally accepted as part of life -- in After Life than in, for instance, The Likeness. I've said above that, in the world of the novel, spiritualism is real and true: still, Naomi does question her gift, and wonders whether she's been deluding herself all along. Unsettlingly, I ended up with more belief in her than she had in herself.
I understood, then, the true horror of the world: it is that once a thing is done, it can never be undone. [loc. 3770]