Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu is an intensely brutal story about the aftermath of being a kidnapping victim. This is not a light read by any means, but I appreciated the book tackling the topic with care and respect and aimed at a Young Adult audience. Epically done. And it is absolutely and definitely here to make your heart bleed a little. It also felt really true to teen voices and experiences and I was super impressed by that.
The story follows two narrators, Caroline and Ethan, and how their lives are accidentally entwined over a kidnapping. Ethan was stolen when he was just a little boy and then years latter, Caroline’s autistic little brother Dylan was taken as well. But it didn’t last long and both boys were rescued soon after. Yet Dylan is still completely traumatised and Ethan has years of abuse to work through. He and Caroline only meet because of their connection to Dylan…but something sparks between them. Caroline wants to know exactly what happened to Dylan and Ethan would love a friend who doesn’t treat him differently. They start playing music together as the look for healing and answers…or revenge.
It really delves into a lot of psychological aspects of trauma and recovery. I totally appreciated how it explored how the mind will work and respond to these things, with selective amnesia for instance. It made the book seem extremely real and the writing was perfect around it. We only get the barest few flashbacks of the time Ethan spent kidnapped, which packs a serious emotional punch. (And also keeps the book non-graphic, which I understand since it’s geared at a teen audience.)
The storyline focuses mostly on characters than actual plot. Ethan is extremely smothered by his newly-reunited loving family and he’s absolutely chaffing at it, but also feels so guilty for it. He wants to find out what normal means, but he has no idea how to even start. He feels so deeply broken by what happened to him too. The story was slow as they went to and from therapy sessions and Ethan worked at a froyo place, and Carolin and Ethan built a tentative friendship around playing music in the garage. But the emotional layer is what you’re here for.
It is dual narrated by both Ethan and Caroline. They both had fantastic and very different voices which was amazing! Caroline’s so complex and kind of the “bad girl” because her home life is pits. But she is secretly sweet and caring and the absolute loveliest to her little brother. She’s definitely the “bad girl with a heart of gold” trope and I couldn’t get enough. Ethan is completely sad and tragic and I ached for him and his conflicted emotions and feelings. He’s extremely traumatised and his character development is amazing, but painful. Caroline’s little brother, Dylan, doesn’t get as much page time but I loved that they represented his autism really well (although unfortunately there were undercurrents about calling Dylan “broken” because of his autism that was completely unnecessary.) I loved how fiercely Carolyn loved and helped Dylan though!
The whole story was really addictive, kind of like watching a flaming plate spin out the sky and hit you. It’s a quite book, though, but there’s a constant undertone of sick dread that makes you desperate to know how these characters end up. I also loved the focus on friendship instead of romance, because wow, these characters all needed to heal.
Afterward was definitely an amazing, but quiet book. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking and realistic which made for a deeply amazing story, even with the horror of what happened to these kids.