There are some things that really are black or white, and not shades of grey. This is one of the messages of a superb novel by Rosamund Lupton, Afterwards. It’s just her second novel, after her very different but equally good Sister.
Afterwards is written in the first person, telling the story of a mother who was very seriously burnt in a school fire. It was school sports day, and she (Grace) was one of the mums cheering their children on, till suddenly she realized that the entire complex of their small private school was ablaze, and that her 17 year old daughter was still inside. She, Jenny, was working as a teacher’s aide and had been assigned the inside job of minding the sick bay.
Grace ran into the building to try to rescue Jenny. She and Jenny were both very seriously burned when the building collapsed on them.
That’s where it starts, but from then on Grace and Jenny are both unconscious in hospital. But their inner spirits are able to release themselves from their bodies, and move around, observe all the action as the police investigate the causes of the arson. Grace and Jenny can speak with each other, but not with other humans.
It’s a fascinating concept, and as the story reaches its conclusion, Lupton has Grace reflect more and more on the nature of our life as humans—life and death—and the nature of angels.
Grace realizes that angels are really not so different from us ordinary folks at all. She points out that in the earliest Christian art, angels did not have wings. In fact they had normal looking bodies, male or female, and were not ‘special’ at all, except that somehow they had moved beyond the limitations of time and space. As Grace moves to the inevitable and tragic result of her injuries, she encounters more and more the character of an angel: first of all, many of her illusions about people are unwound. She sees how much her sister in law, Sarah, loves Grace’s family, and sees in Sarah a depth and strength she had previously missed altogether. On the other hand, she sees ambiguity and sheer evil in people she had always thought were simply ‘nice’. For herself, Grace had always struggled with her inner ‘nanny voice’ of conscience, criticizing herself for under-achieving, and then for being too demanding of others.
At one key moment in the novel, reference is made to the ambiguity of human character, ‘the angel and the devil in a person’. Grace returns to this theme, almost at the end of her journey:
Rowena herself talked about the angel and the devil in a person. We’d thought she meant Sylas Hyman or her father, but I think she was describing herself.
I don’t believe in grey any more. I think black and white, good and evil, co-exist but don’t mingle together; a world not of nanny voices but of devils and angels. (p.438)
This is not an overtly theological or religious work, but it is profoundly religious in its exploration of the meaning and worth of human life. It presents the awful tragedy that comes to a family, and the horrific motivations of some others. It presents the deeply committed work of doctors and nurses, police officers, and friends. It tells of the ambiguities and disappointments of mature love, and the sweet innocence of young love.
The challenge I find in this novel is, first of all, to accept that the division between good and evil is not so much between people, but something within us all.
But for many of us that leads to a kind of moral relativism: to the idea that it is all ‘shades of grey’. In other words, there is no ‘good’ and no ‘evil’, just ambiguity. What a tragic, ugly world that would be!
Grace (surely the name is not an accident!) comes to a different vision, even as her life is slipping away. Or rather, as she discovers, even as her soul is being truly born: there really is love, and goodness, and (yes) there really is evil. And they are different, black and white, not shades of grey.
This is a deeply insightful novel. It is very challenging to a secular culture and to a convenient religiosity that divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. No, it is not ‘us’ and ‘them’; but neither is it all shades of grey.
There is much to encounter here, of the truth of God, of life and death, truth and lies, good and evil. There is much to be going on with—for a life-time. May the Spirit of life guide us into this truth.