I’ve recently enjoyed reading Alison Mercer’s After I Left You. I’m not at all knowledgeable about contemporary genres of fiction, but in broad terms After I Left You is romantic fiction, its plot split between the narrator’s years at university (1991-94) and her almost-present day (2011-12) reconnecting with her contemporaries and the playing out of unresolved narratives from twenty years earlier. I can’t remember where I heard about it, but I was intrigued because I’d enjoyed Elanor Dymott’s Every Contact Leaves a Trace (a sort of deconstructed murder-mystery that’s really about mourning) and when I heard about another fictional account of Oxford in the early 1990s in a different genre, I was intrigued. Dymott and Mercer were both undergraduates in Oxford in the early 1990s; I was an postgraduate at Oxford at the same time.
*NOTE: I’ve tried to avoid spoilers about the really large events, which has led to some avoidance of what really matters about the novel; and to discuss it at all involves at least hinting at some of the story.*
There’s an ease and classical simplicity about Mercer’s narration; she’s completely in control of her materials, knows exactly where she wants the novel to go, and there’s nothing superfluous. (Unless you apply your criteria for superfluity with on some painfully austere basis.) At one point early on I was worried that the novel was going to be too simplified, too diagrammatic: the narrator, Anna Jones, runs into her old friend Meg Brierley, who had also been an undergraduate at (the fictional) St Bart’s College. Meg has recently separated from her partner; Anna suggests that she might start her own business:
‘Maybe I could, but to be honest, I’ve lost my confidence. I find it hard to believe that anyone would take me seriously. I mean, who am I? I’m Jason Mortwell’s ex and the mother of his three children. Who’d invest in that? At the end of the day, I’m just another middle-aged woman who’s been put back on the shelf?’
Anna’s self-consciousness about her status, and the last sentence in particular, have the effect of placing her at little too deliberately in what I assume are the typologies of present-day romantic fiction, as well as getting Meg to do exposition which could be left out altogether or left to the narrator. However, the ability to draw on such typologies and recognisable narratives is probably inseparable from Mercer’s strengths (that classicism and sure-footedness); and the over-explicit placing of the character at this point is a minor blemish.
What Mercer’s particularly good at is evoking the uncertainty of self that’s part of arriving at and existing through university: the awareness of performativity in oneself and others, and the ease with which one is bedazzled by other people’s performances. Several of her characters are, as it happens, aspiring actors, but that’s not what I mean. After they’ve been to see a production by one of their circle, Mercer nails it: ‘none of my friends were quite their usual selves that night. Or rather, we were all trying to be ourselves, and were overshooting the mark.’
Mercer’s way with similes also gives the novel an additional dimension. After Anna has questioned her friend Keith a little too intimately — Keith is one of the best secondary characters, an intriguing composite of types (the under-confident slacker, the outsider, the male confidant) who nevertheless becomes something more than the sum of those parts — she describes the instant change in their relations: ‘I followed him indoors and found him slumped on the sofa, staring not space, and I knew then that I’d broken something, some part of the mechanism of our friendship, and I had never before appreciated how delicate it was, or how precious.’ While the past tense here indicates a gap of a few moments, part of the emotional strength of the novel lies in its awareness of the ways that friendships at university are conducted by people who haven’t achieved complete emotional maturity, and who only achieve it through their mistakes, and who reach a fuller understanding of their situation only in retrospect. Without Mercer having to spell it out, we know that that moment of realisation reverberated for many years later.
The loss of Keith is handled lyrically and movingly. In the 2012 scenes, as Anna attends the wedding of one of her university friends, she remembers him, thinks back to the circumstances of his death, and imagines how he might look had he been able to attend the wedding.
That was when I heard him, as subtle and undeniable as a tap on the shoulder, or an echo, or a memory: I want you to be happy.
The next minute he was gone, as if he’d been drawn back into the splendid quiet of the yew trees, or faded like the imprint of warm breath on a mirror.
Moments like that lift the novel above its plot. The main drivers of the plot are several. From the very outset, the question of Anna’s parentage: her mother has separated from her biological father early on, and she wants to know who he was. (The answer stares us in the face and we don’t see it.) Cumulatively, and much less specifically, the question of what rupture occurred between Anna and her student-days boyfriend Victor, and what its ramifications were. And (less subtly) about two thirds through, when someone recognises that Anna is repressing something she admits that ‘Something did happen […] a long time ago. Three things. Two of the people I loved the most betrayed me. I witnessed a crime. And someone died.’ There’s a sort of resolution of one plot aspect in the final wedding scene which satisfies a basic emotional need for justice, and which would work in a film or TV production, but which felt a little melodramatic and in excess of the quieter and subtler emotional qualities of the novel. Setting aside the plot, at some deeper level what drives the novel is a sense of loss and an awareness that our attempts to repair past damage never completely work.
Does the Oxford University setting matter? I find this hard to judge, having been at Oxford myself as a student (albeit at a very different college), and the only other university I know in detail I know as a lectuer. The novel certainly doesn’t labour its setting: such topographical scene-painting as Mercer provides is only what’s needed for the plot or the emotional state of Anna. St Bart’s is recognisably University College, and the north Oxford annexe recognisably that college’s Staverton Road buildings. A peculiar thing happens when the students visit a small rural church with a well and an adjoining yard full of goats, which is based on St Margaret’s Church at Binsey, but which in the novel is relocated somewhere off a dual carriageway, presumably the A34. I don’t say this as a criticism, but (a) because it’s like one of the those dreamlike moments in Inspector Morse where characters leave the front quad of one college and emerge into a completely different part of town, and (b) because it shows that Mercer isn’t rigidly tied to actual topography.
More importantly, could these characters work in a different university setting? The glamourous Clarissa and her actress mother seem plausible in a received version of Oxford when they might not in a novel set elsewhere. Initially Clarissa’s intimidating self-confidence is a mark of Anna’s feeling of not quite belonging. If the same story were to be set in a different university, I wonder whether Clarissa wouldn’t seem more out of place. (None of this is to do with the real Oxford: I don’t think I met any children of celebrities at Oxford, or if I did they kept quiet about it.) The things that struck me as distinctive about it — the intense pace of the eight-week terms, the potentially claustrophobic quality of college life — aren’t significant in the novel. And the fact that Anna’s friends have drifted apart after graduating and that Anna herself has shown little interest in college reunions deflates the myth of mason-like networks being what Oxford graduates gain from their time at university. For the most part it’s a story that could be transposed elsewhere without loss, and that is very level-headed about its setting. It doesn’t trade on any Bridesheady glamour or mystique about Oxford.
(Having written this, I see that Mercer has written wittily on her blog about her Oxford setting and the pitfalls of writing an “Oxford novel”, and that she’s read far more examples of the beast than I have.)