Kylie Ladd’s debut After the Fall is a perfect example of the sort of book I shouldn’t begin reading late at night. It’s the sort of book that robs me of my sleep, although not because it’s full of harrowing scenes and terrifying monsters, but rather because, like a packet of Tim Tams, it just demands to be finished.
Curiously, and perhaps not entirely evidently from the initial pages, the book’s title encompasses a multiplicity of meanings, and upon reflection can be aptly applied to a number of the themes that can be picked out from this deceptively slight novel. The most blatant of these is, of course, that of adultery and deceit, and the fall from moral grace that accompanies each. However, the novel also seeks to tease out the precariousness that comes with falling in and out of love, as well as the ease with which it is possible to slip between different phases of life. But lest the above make you wary that After the Fall is a finger-pointing proselytising read, rest assured: Ladd weaves a careful narrative that considers rather than judges, illuminates rather than condemns. It is, though, a challenging read at times, and quite a confronting one, and no doubt many a reader will find themselves staring thoughtfully at the curled up figure of their partner lying at their side. There are a dozen themes and issues that, after reading this book, I’m turning over in my mind—oh, to set this novel as a bookclub read!
After the Fall is a confession of sorts, a choral retelling of the slowly amassing events and opportunities that lead to an affair between two seemingly happily married individuals. Interestingly, Ladd focuses less on the why of the affair in question and more on the how and the what, an approach that some may find frustrating, but that gives the story a raw and honest tone. We see the characters as they see themselves, and our perspectives of them are focused through the lens of their actions, past and present, more than any sort of expository justification or search for salvation. It’s an almost voyeuristic approach, with the reader positioned in the role of the knowledgeable friend: privy to what is going on, but all but helpless when it comes to taking any action to address the situation. Indeed, in addition to the four main narrators, Ladd draws in the perspectives of two others who are friends with those embroiled in the affair. These perspectives are intriguing in that these additional narrators are representative of the what could have been—Kate’s friend Sarah is a mother of three, admittedly harried and frustrated, but largely content with her lot, while Tim, a school-friend of flighty Luke, has recently found himself in a promising, stable relationship. The particular narrative asides of these characters serve the role of the Greek chorus, or perhaps of a bard or minor character in a Shakespearean play: reflecting, contrasting, juxtaposing. At some times the vignettes told from the perspectives of these characters do feel a little heavy-handed, working to highlight and clarify particular themes or moral dilemmas, but the characters themselves are well-rounded enough that their occasional appearances do not feel intrusive.
The main narrative is told in a series of alternating scenes by each of the affected: Kate and Luke, and their spouses, Cary and Cressida. While initially the clamour of voices is a little difficult to follow—this is partly due to the brevity of the first few scenes, as well as the fact that the book uses a first-person viewpoint for each character—the device is effective, as it clearly illustrates the myriad voices and perspectives involved in a situation such as that described in the novel. The novel begins almost at its climax, the admission of the affair, but then circles back to trace its evolution, and the frenetic introduction gradually subsides into something softer, more measured as the characters seem to take a breath and reflect on the events that have led to their current situation.
Kate is an extravert, vivacious and outgoing, and is someone who acknowledges but scarcely reflects on her past (and often questionable) actions. A chance and curious meeting at the Melbourne Cup leads to her developing a relationship with the considerably more quiet Cary, whose film-star moniker is a painful reminder of all the things others have dreamt for him throughout his life. Their relationship is less than passionate, but Cary provides the counterweight to Kate’s teetering rapidity, and the two press on towards a life of domesticity, although in retrospect, both might agree that this is perhaps due to the a lack of a better alternative. This is highlighted in the scene where Kate, harassed by a well-meaning friend over whether her ‘big day’ will ever eventuate, demands an on-the-spot proposal from Cary, who shruggingly capitulates. Leaving a slumbering Cary in bed, Kate goes out the next morning to purchase her own engagement ring. Cary’s surprise at her purchase is palpable: the ring is vastly different from what he would have chosen. To what extent, he wonders, is it possible to truly know someone?
But wonders whether it is really the lack of knowledge of a person that is in question here. Perhaps it is more to do with the little compromises one makes, the little quirks, annoyances, behaviours, that one ignores under the guise of maintaining one’s happiness, contentment, the status quo. This, it seems, is the case for Cressida and Luke, who are the sort of couple who pair up perhaps less out of love than out of social expectation. They are the real life equivalent of a television couple: strong, successful, driven—with their blonde good looks they’re even aesthetically compatible. Cressida receives tacit kudos from Luke’s friends and acquaintances for having ‘tamed’ him; Luke is respected for having given up his partying ways. But with their roles so frankly defined, one has to wonder whether this brings the antithesis of that role so much closer, and so much more desirable. Luke’s womanising prowess is something that has defined him, and it is a role that he has been cast into and out of in quite a visible way. There is almost an expectation that he will cheat on Cressida, and when anthropologist Kate ingratiates herself into the two-person village he has created with Cressida, well, let’s just say she manages a truly emic encounter.
It is perhaps the fact of the affair that is so painful to read. There is no one instigating point or force or reason: initially, the two seem only to be attracted to each other purely because the opportunity has arisen, and indeed, as the relationship progresses, one can’t help but wonder whether it is doing so because neither party is sure how to escape what has been set in motion. Guided by inertia, their affair facilitated by their partners’ long working hours and quiet truet, they continue doing what they are doing until other forces demand that things change: Cressida accepts an overseas placement, and Cary confronts Kate about beginning a family. It’s curious that such an ultimatum would arise amidst both relationships—perhaps the wronged parties are more aware of the reality of the affair than anyone, including themselves, is willing to let on.
Curiously, After the Fall ends in a rather more up-beat way than I might have imagined from the raw, almost cruel, narrative that precedes it, and I must admit that I’m almost grateful for this turn. It doesn’t feel tacked on, however, or that the author has taken an easy way out: rather, the denouement remains true to the characters, and actually serves to underscore or elucidate (and in some cases, hint at a possible repetition) a lot of the behaviour or reasoning that has gone on throughout. In part, this shift works because of the cyclical approach of the narrative: the thoughtful, retrospective vignettes at the beginning of the novel do, upon reflection, provide an opening for hope.
Purchase After the Fall
With thanks to the author for the review copy.