Alison Stoddart reviews After the Rain by Aisling Smith
After the Rain
by Aisling Smith
Reviewed by ALISON STODDART
After the Rain is the debut for Melbourne-based author, Aisling Smith, a previous winner of the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. The novel is an enticing exploration of diaspora and all its inherent obstacles encountered by migrants, including the internalised racism that simmers beneath benign white Australia of the 1970’s.
After the Rain exposes generational trauma, but not in the traditional sense. Its themes are childhood angst and the way childhood parameters influences our adult lives. Family life is explored: divorce, raising children, sibling rivalry, all the usual expectations and disappointments.
The narrative point of view rests with its three female protagonists and is mainly focussed on Benjamin, Malti’s husband and father of their two daughters Ellery and Verona. Each women’s relationship with Benjamin alters the different ways they perceive him. His presence is felt in every facet of the novel, but the reader only gets to know him through the eyes of the three women. Benjamin does not have a direct voice or point of view.
Malti Fortune is a young woman of Indian-Fijian heritage who moves to Melbourne from Fiji in the mid 1970’s to study law at Melbourne University. At university that she meets Benjamin, an aspiring linguist who likes to draw attention away from himself with clever use of language. The pair fall in love and marry despite Malti being in contempt of the institution.
The novel opens with Malti and Benjamin taking possession of their new home and Malti is pregnant, a harbinger child who doesn’t come to fruition. We see how she views the actions of Benjamin for this brief period of time, the first year in their house. Malti, a lawyer, is calm and matter of fact. But there are contradictions in her personality. She carries superstitions from her childhood growing up in Fiji. She is also unreliable as a narrator, as disturbing aspects of her marriage are easily noticed by the reader but seem to pass Malti. Benjamin is not present for the relocation to their new house which Malti conveniently makes excuses for. This suspicious behaviour which Malti doesn’t seem to be able to recognise, is readily apparent to the reader.
There is foreshadowing early in the novel of impending trouble in the marriage with a recounting of their wedding anniversary dinner. Malti and Benjamin’s exchange of gifts is suggestive of where this marriage is heading. A boring unimaginative pair of cufflinks for Benjamin ‘she had been working in the CBD too long, this was a present for a lawyer rather than a linguist’ (p 7). And a foreboding filled present of sharp kitchen knives for Malti ‘sharp presents sever relationships’ (p 8).
Smith does not assign blame wholly to one party but rather hints at a lack of insight in Malti’s character as well.
Ellery, the elder daughter takes up the perspective in Part 2. Her’s is a troubled relationship with Benjamin as she experiences early on in her childhood the unreliable and undependable aspects of her father’s nature. Facets which she cannot find within herself to understand and forgive.
Part 3 is by Verona, the conflicted youngest child who likes to think she is Benjamin’s favourite. Like all last born, she struggles with her own worth and the jealousy that is inherently present in the youngest. These children who carry the legacy of coming into the family last and therefore not establishing themselves fully in parental eyes. Ellery and Verona both struggle with the highs and lows of their upbringing and all three women are seeking answers, each haunted by her own ghosts, and by Benjamin.
An overarching theme of the novel raises the question of where does a person feel most at home? Is it in their culture or in their geographical location? Where does one get a sense of place? Do you need to have ancestors to appreciate a country, and if this was so then would new migrants ever be able to settle, to feel a kinship and love for a place?
Smith cleverly references this idea of inherited superstition with the inclusion of three different takes on Fijian folklore that impact each female character. Early in the novel we learn that Malti believes in Udre Udre, a famous cannibal who pursued immortality by eating 1000 bodies. Malti is taken to visit his grave as a child and upon driving away, glances uneasily over her shoulder, checking that he is not following. The unwitting handing down of Malti’s belief in Udre Udre, Ellery’s discovery and entertaining of the belief of Kuttichatham and Verona’s ghost Bhoot cast a dark cloud over all three women.
Smith also makes reference to the Fijian coups that occur in Malti’s homeland three times over the course of her adult life. Although she is a citizen of her new land and a willing participant in its daily life, she still takes interest, and is drawn constantly, to her homeland, helped along by the fact her parents still live there. With Malti’s reading in newspapers of the coups, Smith is able to draw a parallel between the despair felt by a child of a country that is slowly cannibalising itself and the same sense of despair Malti’s two daughters feel about their father’s diminishing interaction in their lives. He too is becoming a shrinking image in their rear vision mirror.
While thought provoking and well executed, the novel lacks some punch in the engagement of the reader. Its timeline jumps around the linear progression of the narrative arc, which is sometimes hampered, and which in turn can lose the interest of the reader. Smith does get back on track with the switching to each new narratorial perspective.
Further, the storyline does not build to any sort of crescendo or climatic ending. It is more about families, relationships, generations and inherited familial traits like superstition. A strength of the novel lies in how the characters reconcile differences between family members and find ways around the disparity in expectations to move forward.
Smith’s debut is very much a generational novel although Smith does not seem to explore fully the relationship between Malti and her own parents. Noticeably strange was that Malti never takes her own daughters back to Fiji to visit. But there is a definite impact of Malti’s childhood on the family. The feel of Fijian/Indian culture is dotted throughout with the references to blue water and yellow sands and childhood superstitions like Udre Udre. And when the girls are older and the perspective switches to Ellery and then Verona, they often mention Fiji when they are thinking about their mother. They even ask their mother why they never went to Fiji and how they would have liked to have visited. Perhaps this can be answered by the act of sole parenting which if Malti is to undertake successfully, she has to take into account her feelings for Benjamin, and also to understand the role her relationship with her parents has in her own parenting.
There is a coda chapter at the end of the novel that serves to bring the story arc full circle but also provides some lovely insights into the forgotten aspects of a broken relationship. Smith beautifully alludes to memories that were never made. One such example is the miniscule event of her first baby, the one that never came to pass. Malti refers to them as ‘fermented wishes and lost hopes’ (p 353). When timelines abruptly stop, something that is often forgotten can whisper through the mind when one is looking at old photos.
Ultimately the reader is left with the melancholy feeling that Malti is also thinking of Benjamin as well, the father of her children and someone she once loved deeply, who will forever hover as memories but also in the faces of Ellery and Verona.
After The Rain is a moving and thoughtful journey from an exciting new literary talent. It raises the question of generational trauma. Is childhood trauma ubiquitous? The influence of parents is undeniable, yet their own trauma and manifestations always need to be taken into consideration when reflecting on diaspora and migrant life.
ALISON STODDART is a country born and bred, Sydney writer currently undertaking a master’s degree at Macquarie University which she is hoping to finish soon. She completed her BA Degree majoring in Creative Writing in 2020. Twitter @a_hatz5