Wednesday 20 March 2019

Follow After Me

Follow After Me by Allison Marlow Paterson (Big Sky Publishing) PB RRP $17.50 ISBN: 9781925675580

Reviewed by Nikki M Heath

What happens when a rural teenager’s efforts to run with the popular crowd clash with her discoveries of a tragic wartime family history? Lizzie is a year 12 student who has turned her back on her studies, her family and her long-time friendship group after attracting the attentions of the cool girl and the most desirable boy in town. While her life begins to disintegrate, she reluctantly begins researching her family’s World War I history for a school project.

Alternating with Lizzie’s contemporary tale comes the story of her family’s experiences during the Great War, told through a combination of letters and third-person narration. The reader is immersed in the experience of war, from the process of enlisting and fighting on the Western Front, to bearing the inevitable anxiety and grief on the home front. While the historical chapters broadly focus around the relationship between Tom, the youngest of five sons to go to war, and his intended, Evie, the whole family’s experience is represented.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, which is heavily based on the author’s previous non-fiction work Anzac Sons: Five Brothers on the Western Front and her own family research. The contemporary chapters layer family tension, financial pressure, drought, teenage angst and year 12 stress. The reader is also confronted with a bald (though not excessively graphic) depiction of sexual assault and its aftermath. Marlow Paterson builds a strong sense of place through keen observation of small details (an ancient, dented kitchen table and threadbare tea-towel, for example) and the use of key features of the landscape to create echoing imagery.

The most important of those images is the ancient tree near the family homestead, which serves to tie the “then” and “now” strands of the story together with its significance to all the main protagonists. It serves as a motif for the novel’s unifying themes of family and romance, and the ghosts of the past lingering around its trunk give Lizzie valuable perspective on her life.

There is real emotional depth to this book, particularly in the historical chapters, which reduced me to tears and gave me chills down my arms on several occasions. Nevertheless, those chapters have some structural weaknesses. Marlow Paterson has tried to incorporate the breadth of her family’s experience and include some real letters from her research. This has educational value but also muddies points of view, which switch frequently between scenes and sometimes mid-scene. Some chapters, for example, take the point of view of the mother of the family, which resonated with me as a mother myself, but is not ideally tailored to a young adult audience. The emotional climax also comes relatively early in the novel – around the halfway mark – which makes for a long, melancholy denouement.

Follow After Me is a moving contribution to the increasingly popular YA war story genre. It will appeal to a wide range of older teenagers (and adults) from 14 years and up, particularly those with an interest in real stories, history or rural life, although it also has a place as contemporary fiction. Despite the female main protagonist, there is a lot here for boys, both in conveying the wartime experience of their predecessors and providing insight into the modern experience of teenage girls in a #MeToo era.

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