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 Pet (2019) by Akwaeke Emezi

When I picked up the novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, published in 2019, for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the novel in general – especially the protagonist – since I usually just cannot bring myself to neither sympathize with nor like the protagonist of books, and especially TV shows.

The protagonist of Pet, Jam, is unusually young, but she, and especially the narration, could not have been portrayed more authentically: She is curious, the narration is simple throughout the whole book, and just like I would assume a person so young would narrate events as unusual and horrifying as the ones portrayed in the novel. The easy-to-understand narration Emezi employs is one of the many reasons I immensely enjoyed reading Pet for I didn’t have to read sentences more than once in order to understand their meaning, which can be quite frustrating at times. I find this kind of narration in a book like Pet immensely important as this novel can be categorized as a young adult novel. This means that its intended audience are teenagers, who are more likely interested in, and keep reading, books which are not hard to digest and do not take up too much time.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet builds up tension from the very first sentence: “There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.” (1), which makes it quite clear from the start that there are indeed still monsters left in the city. But the reader cannot possibly know what kind of real-life monster they will encounter at the end of the novel (Spoiler alert!): a man, a family member, who seems quite harmless and, dare I say, unimportant. The monster of the society in Lucille is not the monstrous looking Pet, but someone who does not even remotely look like someone you would consider to be a monster.

Pet shows how dangerous a society that is in denial and refuses to acknowledge what is happening around it can be, and how to proceed in a world where almost everyone but yourself is in denial about the horrors happening in front of their noses. The novel fits eerily well into our “real-life” society’s problems with its own “monsters” since even nowadays, people choose to ignore the horrors they see, instead of trying to fight them. This eerie connection to reality as we know it is even explicitly mentioned on the back of the physical copy of Pet, where it says that the novel “[…] couldn’t be more well timed to our society’s struggles with its own monsters.”

What really struck me as interesting when reading Pet for the first time, are the unusual names of the characters: Jam, Redemption, Moss, Hibiscus, Bitter, Ube, and Aloe. When googling the meaning of these names, I discovered that “Ube” means “little dad” (“Quaranic names”) or “father” (“Quaranic names”). I was very curious about the name “Jam” just because of the instant (and admittedly quite weird) connection I drew to marmalade. But after I finished the book and googled the name “Jam”, I discovered that it is “primarily a gender-neutral name of American origin” (“”), and completely understood why this book was chosen for our course “Queer and Transcultural Young Adult Literature”, and why the protagonist, who is a 15-year-old black trans girl, was given this particular name. And not only Jam’s name is “gender-neutral” (“”); “Aloe”, the name of Jam’s father, is also a name which is not singularly reserved for only one gender (“babycenter”), which further justifies this novel being chosen for the course.

But not only the protagonist of the novel is very likeable – like I mentioned at the very beginning of this blog entry -; almost every character in Pet is pleasant, e.g. her parents (most of the time), Redemption, and even Pet. This only adds to this novel being an easy and enjoyable read since I personally find it very hard and quite annoying reading a book in which I do not like most of the characters.

It really warmed my heart that Jam’s parents are so understanding and accepting of her being who she is, and that they are not trying to change her in any way. Especially the scene at the very beginning of the novel Pet, when Jam is telling her father that “she want[s] surgery” (17) and he does not even question it (17), was quite heartwarming and just the perfect example for how parents should react in a situation like this.

Considering all these mentioned aspects, the novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is an immensely recommendable read, which tackles society’s struggles in a completely new and different way than I have ever seen before. The likeable characters and the easy language add to this book being a quite easy and quick read; even though some of the topics of Pet are dark and connect eerily well to society as we know it nowadays.


Primary source

Emezi, Akwaeke. Pet. Faber & Faber Limited, 2019.

Secondary sources

„ The Authority for Name Information Since 1996.” Moss Gathering LLC – Las Vegas, NV – NEW, Jam: Name Meaning, Popularity and Info on Accessed 2 January 2022.

“Quaranic names. Authentic Islamic Baby Names.” Accessed 2 January 2022.

“babycenter.” BabyCenter, LLC. 1997-2022, Accessed 3 January 2022.