Book Review: Lament for the Afterlife – Lisa L Hannett

“Ma,” Peyt snaps, swatting the letters away, squirming at their intimate touch. For Daken’s sake, Peytr sighs. Rolls his eyes. Puffs his chest and peppers his wordwind with curses. You’re fuckin’ killing me here, Ma….Let’s go, let’s go, lets fuckin’ go…. The words lilt up to the bare bulb dangling overhead, ugly petals on an unfelt breeze. They circle once or twice, then gasp and deflate, sinking within seconds. Peyt glowers. He wants the cyclone of sentences to rage round his head, to drip sweat and testosterone, to beef up with speed. He wants it to be like Daken’s; a cluster of contempt easily floating, corded with confidence and muscle. Daken’s wind skims his forehead and gropes the back of his thick neck like a mullet. It’s slick and dark and anxiety-free. It’s eighteen and macho.

Peyter tries to match him. Always has. But his thoughts are weak. Florid. Frilly. They pirouette on his shoulders. They hiccup on cocksucker, intentionally misspell faggit. His air-letters shimmer, now pink, now yellow, now puce. In places, the words aren’t even legible. When Daken snorts at the sight of them, Peytr’s paragraphs crumble.

Lisa L Hannett – Lament for the Afterlife

Blending the weird wonder from VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy with the grim relentless grey of McCarthy’s The Road, this is a beautifully written, almost poetic, piece of imaginative and surreal war-fiction. I absolutely loved Lament For The Afterlife, but I fear its unusual structure, difficult characters, and inexplicable weirdness of the setting may mean it struggles to find an appreciative audience.

If you like novels to have artistry and enjoy strolling through someone else’s dreams and nightmares, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Lament for the Afterlife: 5 out of 5 stars

As I said in my last post, I’ve had a plan to increase the number of Australian women Authors I want to read for some time. Lisa L Hannett is not only an Australian woman author, but she lives in my home town of Adelaide AND her book was recommended and blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer – so picking up Lament For The Afterlife was pretty much assured.

I enjoyed this book, but it’s exceptionally hard to describe. Like much ‘weird’ fiction, it defies easy categorisation; there are more elements left unresolved than mysteries answered. It’s a war story as much as it is an exploration of flawed character as much as it is surreal trip through a grey nightmare. It’s a book where the grim and darkly fantastic world is the hero, and the story is driven by a focus on each chapter’s character instead of a traditional three-act arcing plot.

In essence Lament For The Afterlife follows the life of our main character Peytr or Peyt across a number of decades. We meet him as a young man heading off to a long on-going war with the mysterious and elusive ‘greys’ as a medic, through his life as a ‘Pigeon’ (an informal mailman), jumping to his life with a wife and his mistress, and finally leaping to an unusual (but fitting) conclusion. Interspersed through this are short sections focusing on a member Peyt’s family, his war-crippled father working to make prosthetics (the only industry that survives in this war), his patriotic mother, his sisters, his daughter. GoodReads describes this book as a mosaic, and it truly is. It is almost a chain of strongly connected short stories; indeed I think any single chapter could almost be published on its own (and four of them have been – check out this one for example: :”The Good Window“).

Hannett does a great job with these characters. Every single one is flawed, scarred by the war in some way or another, most of them very deeply. None are particularly sympathetic either, including Peytr. In a gentler time Peytr might have been a poet, and he is portrayed as sensitive, imaginative. But here, now, Peytr is a broken man, partly brutalised by the ceaseless and deadly war with the greys, but mostly wounded by the terrible guilt stemming from his own actions during it. For much of the novel he is weak, unreliable, and (I think) lacking agency. Like a leaf he blows from one place and one person to another as he tries to avoid the greys, avoid the ongoing war, avoid the consequences of his actions. Having a main character be so weak and wounded is quite unusual – something I think might put some readers off.

What really makes this novel sing for me is the setting. This is not your standard war novel. Set in some unknown war-torn city, besieged by an unknown and unseen enemy (the greys), the people have a unique mutation called a ‘wordwind’. Thoughts and speech form visible words that swirl around each persons head in some kind of vortex. These swirling words can have power and can have substance. Volatile curse words are screamed out and physically captured to be put in hollow spheres and thrown as grenades. Dream-words, drug-hallucinations, and dying-thoughts make light and airy wordwinds which are collected and stitched together to be used as gliders. A shopkeeper sweeps the floor clean of stray thoughts at the end of the day. It’s a fantastic metaphor, making literal the power of words to wound or uplift, and one that’s excellently executed*.

Lisa writing style brings this fantastical world to a life that is both grey and bleak, but somehow beautiful in its desolation and despair. Everyone and everything is broken and impoverished by the endless war. Characters hide in basements from the unseen greys, trade goods to scavenge in a bin for other people’s keepsakes and photos, try to escape reality by taking drugs (little dreams captured in tiny glass balls that you crush in your mouth), and so on and so on. Everyone has been ground down, merely holding on, barely surviving in this city under siege, and the writing of this tension and despondency is so vivid you can hear the boots splash in the mud, smell the ash and the rot clinging to the streets. Here’s another example of this writing, where Peyt walks past a museum he remembers visiting some time ago that has now been destroyed:

This museum is gone.
In it’s place, an arid cavern that stinks of shit. Sulphur. Sour goat’s milk. The skylights are grimed over or broken, the magic bulbs crushed to powder and blown out through gaps in the walls. Shafts of bluish light sift down through decades of flies and dust; the buzzing is so loud, Peyt plugs his ears as he takes another step in. Gradually silhouettes emerge as he crosses the landing, black on grey, resolving into lumps of destruction. Fallen capitals. Crumbled stairs. Missing columns. Gaping balconies.

I thought this was a gorgeous book (5-stars  means I loved it), but because it is so unusual, I wont be surprised if it alienates some readers. The unsympathetic characters, the lack of traditional story arc, the unresolved mysteries and weirdness…it wont appeal to everyone.

If you liked The Southern Reach Trilogy, or are looking for something very beautiful and very different, I absolutely recommend this book to you.


 

Thanks for checking out this review. This is the second review under the Australian Women Writers challenge for this year. If you give this a shot, let me know what you thought in the comments.
Cheers
KT

*It actually makes me want to revisit an old flash-fiction story I never finished where I was playing with the idea of visible and powerful words. Maybe one day.

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