Book review: After the Eclipse, by Sarah Perry
She believed in the souls of housecats and in the melancholy of rainy days. She believed in hard work, and the energy she poured into her job — hand-sewing shoes at a factory — seemed boundless…She was terrified of birds, at close range, and moths, at any distance, their blurred wings beating the air, their flight paths unpredictable…The clicking of her high heels on our kitchen floor meant happiness to me…
Have you ever watched an episode of Forensic Files or 48 Hours and something takes you out of the distant remove of the crime narrative, you start thinking more about the devastated people left behind after a loved one was killed? We have a natural defense that usually doesn’t allow us to dwell too deeply in this area of thinking, no matter how empathetic we are.
After the Eclipse is a memoir from one such person. Sarah Perry was twelve years old in 1994 when her mother, Crystal, who was raising her alone, was murdered in another room of their prefab home in the small town of Bridgton, Maine. Sarah crept out, saw the scene, and ran from the house in shock and fear, banging on neighbors’ doors for help.
She was eventually shuttled between relatives she barely knew and family friends, moved across the country and back, as she and the adults in her life tried to create space for her in a life without the only caregiver she’d known.
All the while, her mother’s killer remained free. Her marriage to Sarah’s father ended years before, Crystal, like many young women, dated freely and fell into longer term relationships with several men over the years. Of course, this unfairly colored public perspective of her once she was gone, and police naturally and with good reason honed in on those men as suspects. Sarah had to contend with the possibility that someone who both treated Sarah well and loved her mother had also killed her.
Crystal’s case was eventually solved with forensics and DNA, so it’s also interesting to see how technology and the system working well (for the most part) was able to at least give a grieving family and a devastated daughter some answers.
The narrative alternates each chapter between the time before and after the murder. It’s skillfully done, there’s never confusion about what’s taking place and when, though that might be less due to meticulous organization and clear writing than to the defined voice and tone that Sarah inhabits in these different periods.
This book sometimes feels like it’s emotionally wrecking you, then putting you back together. It’s devastating and powerful and painful and hopeful and a hundred more emotions mixed together. Perry is a gifted, beautifully elegant writer, which makes every page something unusually special to read, but in addition to the strength and quality of her writing, she has a true storyteller’s ability of making a narrative so compelling that it has that elusive impossible-to-put-down-quality.
It really was impossible not to keep reading – wondering where life had taken this young, precocious girl next, simultaneously becoming more invested and drawn into the story of who had taken away her mother. She would have to ask that question for years, and it haunts the entire narrative.
Perry has created a beautiful testament to her mother’s life and her love for her daughter, demonstrating that special bond between children – maybe especially daughters – and single mothers. It’s touching and revealing as she pieces together her mother’s life and comes to better understand her own. She’s also documented her own remarkable strength and resilience. It’s unimaginable, what she’s been through, even as she walks us clearly through it step by step. The story is never uncomfortably self-pitying or boring, as reading so deeply about another’s life and troubles can sometimes be.
Oddly, on another note, this was the third memoir I’ve read this year written by daughters coming to terms with and seeking the truth about their mothers’ murders. Weird that there’s a sudden, specific proliferation, or did I just not notice titles like this before? This one was my favorite of the three. The rich, narrative writing style and the clear introspection Perry applies to her childhood and adolescence appealed to me, and her storytelling is incomparably gripping.
I did watch her mother’s episode of Forensic Files, in which she participates, after finishing the book. But I’d recommend that you don’t read, watch or google anything about the case before reading. Let Sarah tell this story herself. It seems like she’s been waiting two decades to tell it her way, and the result is something truly powerful.
After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search
by Sarah Perry
published September 26, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.