Girlfriend in a coma

After You'd Gone

Maggie O'Farrell <em>Review, 372pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0747271100

Maggie O'Farrell's prologue is certainly attention-grabbing. Not least because the climactic mo-ment takes place in a Superloo at Edinburgh station. The atmosphere, like the heroine's life, is instantly shattered. What has Alice seen in the looking glass? What is so upsetting that she takes the next train back to London? Who is John? We know that the answers to these questions will tell us why Alice steps into the oncoming traffic.

Thus our heroine is put out of action before the story has really begun. Not a very auspicious start for poor Alice, and neither perhaps for the novel itself. But, in fact, O'Farrell pulls off a warm and suspenseful novel, even though the central character is unconscious throughout.

The rest of the story is told in flashbacks, as Alice's family gather round her hospital bed. A picture of her life gradually emerges, including some of the pieces that Alice herself has been missing. Her childhood in the Scottish Borders unfolds alongside her doomed love affair with John, a journalist. Both narratives are shadowed by a mystery or dilemma: her mother's adultery and John's religion.

The love story is touching, if sometimes slightly maddening. All the cosy images of the couple in cafes, in the bath, in bed, make John's death more shocking - but he was probably too perfect for this world anyway.

The passages in which O'Farrell returns to the past to develop the characters of Alice's mother and grandmother, and their antagonistic relationship, better demonstrate her imaginative scope. Alice herself is a rather predictable unpredictable heroine - arty, passionate and rebellious. Men are always falling in love with her, even, as her sister wryly observes, when she's in a coma.

O'Farrell is best in her portrayal of grief - loss, as the title suggests, is at the novel's centre. The tricky structure is well handled, illustrating the idea that the actions of one generation affect the next. Although there is a strong sense of reconciliation at the end, not all the storylines are resolved. Perhaps After You'd Gone works to capture the messy inconclusiveness of life. But, despite an uneasy combination of realism and melodrama, this is a stylish first novel.

Lisa Allardice is deputy arts and books editor on the NS