After You by Jojo Moyes (and My Story)

“You never know what will happen when you fall from a great height.”

google image

How do you survive a loss? It is a process and it takes time. First, accept, then mourn, and then move on. Accepting is a mental procedure, it happens in your head. Mourning comes with internal as well as external factors. We cry, we drink, some of us do something reckless, some of us seek refuge in spiritual bliss, and some of us go on trips. But what do we do in between? In between the tears and the epic trips? During those small hours before dawn hits the sky? Or during the washroom breaks on a busy day at work? ‘After You’ takes off when a grieving woman in her late twenties falls off a five storey building. Nope. She does not have any mental disorder. She is not alcoholic. She is not a psycho, unworthy of a happily ever after with any normal man. She is just sad. She has lost the man she loved. And she has been grieving for past eighteen months. Every night she comes home from work, gets drunk, goes on the rooftop, stands on the parapet and shouts at the sky, “Fuck you Will. Fuck you for leaving me.” On one night she just loses her balance and falls off. Our story begins.

What happened to Will? Who was he? Why did he leave? In order to know that you have to go back to where it all started, the first book. Me Before You. I call it ‘the love story that ends with euthanasia’. A quadriplegic man of 35 Will Traynor hires a paid caregiver, Louisa Clark. They slowly develop an unusual bonding. Six months later Will ends his life with assisted suicide as he did not want a life confined in wheelchair. Louisa starts a new chapter. Me Before You ends there on a promising note. Then comes the sequel. And we see an utterly lost Louisa still sleeping in Will’s tshirt eighteen months after his death. The first thought that comes to her mind after her fall was, am I paralysed?

I read the first book back in 2016. It was not until the end of 2017 I was lurking about (I do that almost every day after work) in the only bookshop of Darjeeling when I came across the sequel. My man did not die, touchwood. May god give him a long, happy life. But he did dump me two days prior to my birthday last year. It’s been almost four months and yes I am still grieving the living fuck out of it. And yet all this time I was so afraid to admit that, let alone to the world, to even myself. And the worst part of it is, suddenly, out of nowhere, everything I did, everything I said, everything I felt are all turned into one disease that I never had and any sign of protest will be held against me as another symptom of the same. And you have no idea how helplessly frightening that is. Every time I feel sad his voice echoes in my head. You have BPD, Kuheli. You are sick. You need treatment. All this time I was forcing myself to appear indifferent while something invisible was digging a giant drill machine into my bones. Who knows what I might end up doing that too would be on one of those fuckall google articles as a BPD symptom. I was running away from myself until on one winter afternoon in Oxford Bookstore I bumped into Louisa Clark again, after almost a year. And when Louisa fell off her rooftop somehow I felt a sudden surge of comfort that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I just realised that I am not crazy, or at least, I am definitely not the only crazy person in the world. True, two situations are totally different. But if Louisa Clark can break her hip bones in two over an acquaintance of six months and then I too can wander about the whole city aimlessly over a one year relationship.

You might wonder why I am constantly repeating my sob story instead of talking about the book. I know I can talk about the book as a reader. Yes, After You is a good book. Its lucid narrative, not too sombre shade instead of all the elements of sadness and the very relatable characters make it a great read. But After You is more than just a book to me. Not only Louisa, After You has many other characters fighting their respective battles. No one is mentally sick; they are just.. humans. And it’s OK to lose your shit over some personal disaster. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. Drinking doesn’t mean you are alcoholic. And deliberately standing on the edge of a roof doesn’t imply you have Borderline Disorder. Yes some people are out there suffering from these diseases. But more often than not a very normal person can end up in a situation where they might become a complete wreck for the time being. I wanted to read this book sitting in a bench at Chowrasta with a colourful crowd surrounding me. Instead I started and finished it sitting in my room back in Calcutta, rubbing my eyes out with pillowcase hoping no one would notice my red, puffy eyes. As usual, nobody did. At least I did not end up crying amidst a sea of people. In past two days Louisa and I became friends. I know how it feels like to live a life through someone else’s eyes. Seeking constant validation from someone who doesn’t care what you are actually doing. Having those conversations over and over in your head while calculating what you could have done to prevent the disaster. I wish I hadn’t said that. I wish I hadn’t done that. I wish I hadn’t gone on that trip. You know it is all destiny’s game. You could not have stopped it from happening. And yet you go to bed and cry yourself to sleep thinking I wish I hadn’t…

After You has another pivotal protagonist, Lily. A sixteen years old girl with a broken, disrupted family. A troubled child. An illegitimate child. She sneaks out of her boarding school. She drinks. She smokes pot. She fights with her parents. She is moody. She is chaotic. She goes to sleep believing everyone she meets dislikes her. And besides all, she constantly looks for a home, a person, a piece of something to hold on to. (The more I read about her I couldn’t stop thinking what ‘he’ might have had to say about this girl. Borderline Disorder? Psychosis? Bipolar? Rebellious filthy girl who doesn’t deserve to be happy? Someone should teach her a good lesson by hurling everything back at her? I don’t know.) Then there is Daphne, whose story is just as heartbreaking as anyone else’s. Oh god.. I read the entire book with Ed Sheeran’s Photograph and Atif Aslam’s Dil Diyaan Gallan (my two current favourite) playing on headphones, on repeat mode. And I cried copiously. I cried for Louisa. I cried for Lily. I cried for myself. All those tears came out after months without a single drop of alcohol in my system. Last time I cried like this when I was in Chennai. That time a paralysing sense of premonition coupled with the sadness of it had wrung my body whole night, churning out the last drop of tear. (I knew what was about to happen! I am so bloody scared of my own mind sometimes. It never falters.) This time I don’t know what it was all about. I couldn’t figure it out amidst the cacophony that goes on in my head these days.

I am not a consistent reader like some people whom I look up to as my inspiration. Yet I try. I have read some great books. And somehow, coincidentally the timing was perfect. Every time. I finished the entire Harry Potter series in a week right after my father fell sick, my career took a downward turn, and a stupid man left me into pieces. I read Gone Girl when I was torn up between the possibilities of doing the right thing and finding instant gratification. And yet, I never talked about a single book at such length. After You maybe not even that great a book, technically speaking. But I have never felt so one with a story before. Louisa and Lily’s story is also the story of mine. I have been through the same struggles, I still am. I am still fighting to get past things that I have done but I have never meant to do. I am still trying to make peace with the unexpected twists and turns. I am still fighting to get past the overwhelming sadness brings about by a deep sense of regret and guilt and anger. I am still trying to make peace with the times when I have been utterly misunderstood. I am trying hard to forgive the people who couldn’t see through me. And above all, I am trying to forgive myself for all of it.

The best part about a book or a movie is that its ending has already been fixed. And you can guess it from the pattern of the story. So no matter how difficult Harry Potter’s life is, we know he will defeat Voldemort in the end. Or Captain America will be able to save Bucky Barnes and Avengers will reunite. The moment Louisa Clark hits the rock bottom (poor pun alert) you know that her life is about to change and hopefully for something better. Louisa is lucky; she is just a fictional character in a book. I am from a dimension where I don’t know the ending of my story. I don’t know how far I will have to keep falling until life will change its course and gravity will finally have mercy on my soul. And yet somehow I still fiercely believe in that subtle fairy tale quality of life. That from living in a cupboard under the stairs you can end up having a happy home. That your long lost best friend can actually come back, even if he is now an assassin of Hydra. Or that you can fall off the roof and end up in the arms of the man who is going to be more than a paramedic for you later. Until then you just gotta keep hoping, that someday everything will fall into place and it will all make sense.

After You is my first book of 2018. I think that bears some significance somehow.