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Between Before and After

by Jessica Stilling

Rating: *****

Successful indie film director, Sebastian Foster, returns to Paris, where he lived as a teenager to turn the third of his mother’s acclaimed novels into film. The novel deals, within a supposedly fictional framework, with the accidental death of his half-sister, Lucy, in 1994.

As Sebastian delves into Regina Foster’s narrative and his memories, the events of that awful day and the people involved begin to take on a different complexion, causing Sebastian’s grip on reality to become increasingly tenuous as he desperately searches for answers and attempts to deal with the resurfacing of his raw grief…

Between Before and After contains elements of mystery, romance, and interpersonal drama while carrying on a successful flirtation with becoming an outright psychological thriller.

Notwithstanding, Between Before and After is primarily literary fiction; Stilling’s prose is sublime and she deftly switches the narrative between 1994 and the present to build Sebastian’s story and that of those around him.

Threads of commonality and foreshadowing weave and flicker between the decades coloring the story with foreboding and tension that spirals grippingly toward the mayhem of Lucy’s death.

Sebastian is a complex character and Stilling presents him wonderfully. Despite a seemingly suave exterior, he is weighted by emotional vulnerability and weariness. He can be frustrating and immature but as the plot accelerates, his behavior and descent back into grief are portrayed with gut-wrenching bewilderment.

Personally, the scene involving the red window awning just before halfway really signposts his disintegrating mental health, and the reconstructed 90s flat becomes a deeply uncomfortable motif without Stilling over-analyzing; she cleverly leaves the reader to do this.

Nonetheless, the fact that Sebastian is a director is not a convenient add-on, he pulses with an almost forensic observation of details whether or not in relation to his filming, and this examination of his surroundings lends the book an intensely visual aspect.

This is complemented by Stilling’s use of the Paris setting. Seen through Sebastian’s eyes at different times in his life, the city is elegantly rendered. Subtle yet exquisitely descriptive and sensory imagery effortlessly conjures up the French capital without resorting to tired cliché.

There are several relationship dynamics at the core of Between Before and After. The only one not touched by toxicity and deceit is between Sebastian and Maja, his teenage sweetheart, who returns. There is a profound connection between them and their chemistry is vital if gentle.

Regina Foster does not physically enter the novel for some time and this builds apprehension as she remotely impresses as a selfish, domineering woman, and mother, who simmers with secrets and complexity. There are legitimate reasons for some of her behavior but, the relationship between her and Sebastian is complicatedly broken, damaging Sebastian far more than he admits.

Another integral connection is with Sebastian’s childhood friend, Marcel. Marcel begins by being rather entitled and unlikeable but becomes a lost, pathetic figure, broken by his parents, both of whom are extremely unpleasant and manipulative and not only toward their son.

Stilling’s characterization is pretty flawless even down to the minor players. However, five-year-old Lucy is brought to life so completely and with such naturally authentic little girl vibrancy, she literally bounds around the pages making the events of 1994 even more heartbreakingly poignant.

Between Before and After is a gem of a novel. Written in sophisticated and haunting prose that twists with layers of invitation and intrigue around a well-constructed, highly considered, and credible story, it’s a beautifully compulsive read. Highly recommended.

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