Tanya Byrne’s Young Adult novel Afterlove follows Guyanese-British teenager Ashana Persaud, also known as Ash. The blurb of the book tells us that Ash is going to die during the novel, and in fact, the first chapter already introduces us to Ash while she is ‘working’ as a grim reaper. But after this first chapter, we are allowed to get to know Ash during her last months alive – and Ash gets to fall in love for the very first time, with a girl called Poppy Morgan.
“She throws her head back and laughs and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. This delicate shiver, like the sound my grandmother’s gold bangles make when she’s clapping roti, that grows and grows until it’s so loud – I can feel it in my bones.” (p. 20)
The story of Ash and Poppy is framed by all the teenage-giddyness and excitement you would expect from a teenage love story. We experience how Ash and Poppy fall in love, from cute first dates to seemingly endless talks about their lives, identities and families. Ash gets to feel how your partner talking passionately about something you do not understand can be the most beautiful thing, even though you are standing in museum full of art – or comparing Poppy’s laugh to the sound of her grandmother’s bangles while clapping roti – or the nervous excitement of telling your parents that you are seeing someone you would like them to meet – or eagerly thinking about what their life together will look like 20 years ahead, maybe sharing a house, having a dog. While their love story definitely makes you smile and maybe even giddy as though you are falling in love for the first time too, specifically thoughts about the distant future leave you with a pang of early grief for the life Ash will never get to live. At times, you hope that the blurb somehow lied to you, but in the end, Ash dies in a painfully accidental way on New Years Eve.
“Grim reapers are responsible for the people in their parish who die the same way they did. So, in your case, you will be responsible for adolescent sudden deaths.” (p. 168)
Because Ash is in fact the last person to die that year, she joins a group of grim reapers and takes on the job of escorting the souls of the city’s deceased to Charon. The way this works in the novel is simple, yet its concept is still fun and interesting – Grim reapers actually freely move around us and just distract themselves until they are called to escort a soul. In order to not be noticed by the loved ones they left behind, their appearances change ever so slightly so that it would be plausible to just be mistaken for themselves, because being actually recognized can dangerously affect the natural order of life and death. But when Ash sees Poppy again, she is ready to risk it all – She is willing to break every rule just to be with Poppy again.
Afterlove is obviously not your typical lovestory. But at the same time, when it comes to the sentiments of love, it is exactly that. Ash is ready to risk it all for Poppy, which can be seen as just teenage over-eagerness, but for Ash, it is the conviction that Poppy is just the one. She is ready to challenge death and she is absolutely certain that their love can defy death itself and that it stretches beyond life, death, and everything before and after. The cast of central characters is relatively small, some characters might be rather odd, but they still are endearing in their own way. The only thing I missed was more exploration of Ashana’s family. But overall, I enjoyed Afterlove a lot for the other reasons I already mentioned: the teenage giddyness, the interesting concepts and building of the “life” of grim reapers, the conviction of a love that stretches beyond life, death and time as we know them.
If you would like to read Afterlove, please be aware of the following Content Warnings: Death, discussion of different causes of death, lesbophobia