Book Review: Before & After by Matthew Thomas

Before And After - Matthew Thomas - Header

They say never judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes you just have to break the rules and do it anyway. I have owned Before & After by Matthew Thomas since I first set eyes upon it’s confused embossed sheep, many, many years ago. 15 years in fact. And in the intervening time, it has been read by friends, family and even moved to North Wales before being returned back to me. Always to sit on the book shelf in the corner, loved, treasured but unread.

So it seemed only fitting, that I  finally gave in as it were, and read it. That I finally sat down to see whether or not it was actually any good. This book has held such an important and loyal place in my life for some long without remorse, that it deserved it’s chance to tell it’s tale. A tale that captured my mind at a 16 year old, even if I was too lazy back then to expand it out.

The first thing I should say is that this is a tale of Nostradamus, exploding sheep and the end of the world as the cover proclaims, and that is a pretty fair reflection of the story hiding inside. The story isn’t an overly complicated one, you’re certainly not going to be confused or lost at any point as to what’s going on, but sadly, you will be as to why it’s going on.

There just isn’t really enough depth given to expanding out the stories, and explanations. It all felt a little light and trivial. Which meant that as a pleasant read it accomplished it’s goals but you never really sank you teeth into it. It never really grips you. Emotionally there is just something lacking which meant that even as sheep starting to detonate and judgement day loomed large, your heart just beats as if the sun is shining and the birds tweeting and all is well in the world.

But I think that problem stems from Matthew Thomas’ writing style.This is his first novel, written when he was 29, and you get a real sense as you work you way through that he is very much influenced by the writings and imagination of Douglas Adams. There are numerous passages which feel like they were written after day dreams of Arthur Dent and The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And this slight sense of imitation is further enhanced by the tone of the language. Everything is relayed through metaphorical joke and comedic footnote. Which to begin with is OK, but as the references to Adam become more obvious and the jokes start to get mundane, repetitive and forced, it starts to become wearily fast. Or as it would be described in the book, like the uncle at a wedding, one drink ahead of the wind still trying to dance even though the DJ went home 4 hours ago.

I also found that the book involves too many characters, every few pages it appeared that a new angle was introduced, more sets of eyes with a narrative view on proceedings raised their voice. And while, the lack of depth meant this never became confusing or caused you to lose sight of the basic plot. It did mean that there was too much going on. Too much to try and piece together and because the more this happens, the more you feel as though Thomas didn’t have the courage of his convictions to cut any idea out and write a concise, tight story, instead allowing each idea in, even if only fleetingly before praying it all gelled together.

One of my favourite things about reading is that you get to bring the world to life. No matter how descriptive the writing may be, it’s up to you to paint the picture in your head. The size, shape, colour and smell are all interpreted by you from the source material. And I felt this was were Thomas’ novel lacked the most. It never really comes alive, his writing, his descriptions never really commanding your imagination to come to life. You can picture the people, the settings and the events but they don’t feel rich, the never really come into focus. For a book over 400 pages long, to be left with the picture in my mind being a little hazy, is slightly disappointing.

Over all, having finally read Before & After, I can hand on heart say I did enjoy it. Yes the writing isn’t great, and there’s a bit too much going on without enough depth to support it, but I found it entertaining. It may not have had me pinned to my seat, turning page after page unable to put it down, but it commanded my attention. I looked forward to reading the next passage each day. And to finish in the style of Thomas, Before & After has now taken it’s rightful place, back on the book shelf of my life, where it can sit with a fatalistic smile across it’s seasoned face while it crosses it’s creased and stained pages, praying the sheep don’t start entering orbit.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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