Not even death will tear them apart – Review of Afterlove by Tanya Byrne

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.

It’s OK to take the songs you skip off your playlist. It’s OK not to finish the book if it feels like a closed door, not a window. It’s OK not to get married, if you don’t want to. It’s OK not to have kids, if you don’t want them. It’s OK not to know all of this yet.

(p. 356/357)

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

Review of the novel “When the Moon was Ours” (2016) by Anna-Marie McLemore

by Mira Kalcker

„This is the thing I learned from loving a transgender boy who took years to say his own name: that waiting with someone, existing in that quiet, wondering space with them when they need it, is worth all the words we have in us.”

McLemore, (page Number to be added)

The final sentence of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Author’s Note in When the Moon Was Ours speaks for the whole of their brilliant, partly autobiographical novel. When the Moon was Ours tells the story of Sam and Miel, best friends living in a small town and each with more secrets than most teenagers carry. Sam paints moons he hangs all over the town and Miel grows roses from her wrist that everyone knows about. But beneath this, even more secrets are hidden. For Sam, it is his gender identity, the fact that almost no one knows that the body beneath his clothes has been assigned female at birth. Miel’s secrets, on the other hand, lie even deeper than that, buried in the pages you need to read for yourself if you want to uncover them.

The novel is something completely different from all the books I have read so far, even though my bookshelves are filled with Young Adult Literature. And it makes me wonder and even a little bit frustrated that this so important and unique novel is widely unknown. While one could argue about the slow pace of the plot, McLemore explores topics that are incredibly relevant, not only for our time but especially for young adults who grow up in this world and do not quite seem to fit in anywhere.

The most obvious theme is the one of Sam’s gender identity. Samir or Samira? is the question that is being constantly asked throughout the novel. McLemore’s husband himself is transgender and as the quote from the beginning of the article already tells, they were by his side when he found himself. This makes their work so credible, writing about something that they are clearly knowledgeable of, and as they say, they also talked to their husband about his journey. Sam struggles throughout the novel with all factors, from societal to his own feelings but ultimately comes to a conclusion which is nicely done.

However, what I personally did not really like is that they introduced the concept of bacha posh to this conflict. “Bacha posh is one way of adapting to a rigid social environment where having a son is a must for any family desiring prestige and security. Families that can’t produce a son sometimes resort to this deception, dressing up one of their girls as a boy and presenting her as a male offspring to society.” (Guardian, According to McLemore, this concept is mainly practiced some regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and ends with the bacha posh returning to women when they are of age. Sam inhabits this role when he and his mother repeatedly experience cultural discrimination. While I appreciate the idea to represent a wider range of cultural concepts, I am simply not sure how brilliant McLemore’s idea truly was. Personally, I miss the credibility for why they took up bacha posh in their novel, what their connection to it is. It simply seems really random, even in the Author’s Note. Naturally, one might wonder how easily the bacha posh can later move into the role of a woman, as McLemore says, however I see tying bacha posh so tightly to being transgender as slightly problematic. It seems like an easy, overly simplified answer to the question how bacha posh impact the girl’s (or in this case, boy’s) gender identity. Especially since performativity, gender roles etc. are such an incredibly complex topic, I cannot help but think that McLemore bit off more than they can chew.

But the idea of bacha posh already points to another theme, McLemore discusses: transculturality. “When the Moon Was Ours” gently and xy speaks of what it means to grow up as a generational immigrant, from cultural practices, such as food or tales, to discrimination the characters experience. Miel is Latine [1], just as McLemore themself, Sam is Pakistani. The author also points to the idea that marginalised people always have to try harder in order to be accepted. For example, Sam’s mother is widely liked despite being Pakistani because she does exceptional work for the townspeople. Aracely, Miel’s sister and a healer, on the other hand, is quick to be judged, even though she does help people as well but within a cultural practice. Naturally, the cultural topics reach even deeper but that is something you will have to find out for yourselves. Concerning discrimination, When the Moon was Ours also touches upon internalised homophobia and how blinding it can be.

Another theme that When the Moon was Ours explores is how to find one’s own identity outside of a fixed community. McLemore does so by introducing the Bonner sisters who represent a fierce unit, a unit that has already gotten cracks when the plot of the novel begins. Developing uniquely in a fixed environment is an issue most people face growing up. Finding individuality can be scary because it usually means that the relationships we have with the people around us change. This means that we lose security and have to face our true selves. McLemore quite cleverly works this issue into her story and it becomes even more apparent through a second read.

All in all, and despite my criticism, I strongly recommend When the Moon was Ours to anyone who wants to think a little more outside of the boxes. A little magical fairy tale, a little coming-of-age story and a lot of diversity is what I would describe When the Moon was Ours as. And I personally think this is a beautiful and powerful combination.

[1] The genderneutral term “Latinx” is likely more well-known to our readers. However, most Latine people do not appreciate the term and use the more linguistically appropriate “Latine” – including McLemore.