book review: Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

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Thank you to NetGalley, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and Roaring Brook Press for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

This was a tough one for me to review.

It isn’t unusual for authors to see stories in events that hit the news. I’m grateful that Mathieu waited a while before publishing this. It’s – of course – inspired by the rescues of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who spent four years and four days respectively, in the clutches of Michael J. Devlin, a convicted child rapist.

The boys have thankfully been kept out of the spotlight since their rescues. I hope the release of this book doesn’t tear apart the fragility of any peace they have managed to find. With that said, on with the review.

Afterward is a subtle and spare novel. There are no histrionics or overwrought passages. Fitting, as it’s told largely from the perspective of Caroline, a young teenager dealing with the kidnapping – and rescue – of her little brother. When Dylan returns, Caroline struggles to understand the snatches of her speech her brother (who has autism) manages to convey. As his behavioral problems escalate and her parents’ already fractured marriage begins to crumble further, Caroline seeks out the boy who was rescued along with Dylan – hoping to find answers, and peace.

With Ethan, Caroline discovers an unlikely friendship. In Ethan, we discover a boy who was not allowed to be ‘whole’, and instead, was disassembled by his kidnapper, until only fragments of memory remain. A blessing? Or a curse? Ethan attends therapy, wrestles with conflicting feelings about his return, and strikes up a budding relationship with Caroline.

Despite a few ill-advised kisses, thankfully Mathieu does not change the focus of the book into a romance. The friendship between Ethan and Caroline is rich enough in scope without adding the complication of sex into it. But it does provide a moving portrait of how a boy might adjust after being tortured – and crucially, seduced – for so long, by his kidnapper. As Ethan opens up in therapy, the book becomes heartrendingly realistic, and doesn’t shy away from the difficult, often agonizing questions.

All in all, a very thoughtful and sensitively written book about the aftermath of trauma, from all perspectives.

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