I have read Nikki Gemmell’s earlier novels and many of her columns in The Australian. I remember her writing about having to move her grandmother into care, and then losing her. Then when her mother’s death followed so quickly after that I was surprised, and then found out how.
In After she covers all of this and more. This often harrowing book deals with the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. In the middle was Elayn, a complex woman, who Nikki ran away from, but then returned to, fortunately for her last years. She had thought she would be partly relieved, freed when she died, but her mother ‘got me well and good’.
She writes in a fragmented way, short paragraphs that seem blurted out, as she tries to make sense of what her mother has done ‘without warning, consolation or explanation’. Understandably there is ‘a breaking, a splintering. Brain not working, cannot wrote, cannot think straight’.
This book is about parenthood from both ends – being a parent, and being parented, as Nikki strives not to be her mother. It shows how women are expected to take responsibility for aging parents rather than men. Many of the grey areas that still remain around euthanasia are raised, but we are reminded of the need for quality of life, empowerment, control and choice. It addresses the correlation between chronic pain and depression, and the need for more research in that area.
She ultimately works out that she and her mother are ‘so alike, so apart’, and recognises the gifts Elayn has given her through some of her choices.
As one woman writes to Nikki ‘It’s a travesty that in a free, secular country people like your mother and I are proscribed from having control over the time and method of our passing’. As books like this, and Steven Amsterdam’s novel The Easy Way Out show, this is not a black and white issue, but more needs to be done to stop families facing the death of a loved one like this.