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What Comes After


What Comes After

WHAT COMES AFTER is a poignant and suspenseful debut novel about the tensions of love, anger, courage, forgiveness and everything in between. Set in a coastal Washington town rocked by a shocking tragedy, JoAnne Tompkins’ first book is an unforgettable story of life after loss.

One week into his senior year of high school, Daniel Balch does not come home after football practice. He is strikingly handsome, athletic and well-liked, and is treated as a sort of hero in his small town, so his father, Isaac, is not too concerned at first. But when he still has not shown up by morning, a search begins. On the eighth day of Daniel’s disappearance, his childhood best friend, Jonah, dies by suicide, leaving behind a note not only saying goodbye, but confessing to Daniel’s murder and leading the police to his violently stabbed body. Jonah gives no reason for the attack, but locals --- and Isaac --- immediately start to weigh the boys’ differences: Daniel was attractive and popular, while Jonah was jumpy and awkward. It is proposed that a girl might have been involved, but even that explanation lacks evidence. However, there is a young lady who knows more about the boys than even their closest friends and relatives.

Sixteen-year-old Evangeline McKensey’s luck has run dry. She has been abandoned by her Jesus-obsessed mother for a life of drug addiction and wretched men, and she is just a few days away from being evicted from her home. She is also pregnant. Like everyone in Port Furlong, she has been watching and listening for more news about the murder-suicide that ripped their town in half. But unlike her fellow citizens and their half-baked theories, she spent time with both boys in their last days, and she saw sides of them that others didn’t. Since the discovery of Daniel’s body, she has become drawn to Isaac, who, even in the most emotional press conferences, seems to possess an otherworldly stillness. It is this surety, this stoicism, that leads her to trek into town to find Daniel’s home and wait for something, though she’s not sure what that is.

"Tompkins is incredibly skilled at taking huge, universal themes and packing them into tight, intimate scenes, never once losing the strength or gut punch of the emotions behind them."

When Isaac discovers a dirty, disheveled, pregnant teenager on his property, he knows that he must act with charity and kindness. He welcomes her into his home and is shocked by the filth under her fingernails and the bloody scratches on her hands. He gives her a bed for the night and some clean clothes left over from his ex-wife. In an even greater act of kindness, he accepts her flimsy story about a deceased mother, a drug-addicted aunt and a random bus trip to Port Furlong. Although Evangeline does not mention her connection to Daniel, she and Isaac strike up a quiet, careful companionship, all while she prepares for motherhood and he attempts to face his grief and anger head-on. A devout Quaker who has practiced stoicism for practically his entire life, Isaac is drawn to protect Evangeline, who he senses has never known true love or kindness. But he is also intrigued by her potential connection to Daniel, which stirs curiosity, rage and profound sadness in him all at once.

Living next door to Isaac and Evangeline is Lorrie, Jonah’s mother. While Isaac and his wife, and Lorrie and her husband, were once all friends --- their sons growing up and playing alongside one another --- they were pushed apart by divorce, death and the boys’ friendship dissolving. But now the connection between their sons is unavoidable. Isaac is desperate to forgive Lorrie for Jonah's hand in Daniel’s death, but he finds himself behaving coldly, even cruelly, to her as she starts to befriend Evangeline and help her navigate her pregnancy. When it becomes clear that Evangeline knew Daniel and Jonah, and that she might even be carrying one of their babies, Evangeline, Isaac and Lorrie are thrust into a painful, revealing communion that forces them to confront their own relationships with the boys, themselves and one another.

With a murder mystery that is more murder than mystery at its heart, WHAT COMES AFTER is a propulsive read that explores the after-effects of tragedy. There is much to be said for Tompkins’ weaving of anger and grief, love and forgiveness, but it is Evangeline and Isaac who make the novel unforgettable. Isaac is a unique character in that he is profoundly self-aware: he knows how to forgive Lorrie, how to approach Evangeline, and even how to be a friend to his struggling coworker. And yet, like any human, he has tremendous blind spots, and it is in these moments where Tompkins truly shines. Because Isaac is so introspective and stoic, his rage, jealousy and envy are all the more shocking and impactful in their emotional tension. His relationship with Lorrie, in particular, is written more tautly and deeply than almost any other friendship, romance or rivalry I have ever read. Tompkins is incredibly skilled at taking huge, universal themes and packing them into tight, intimate scenes, never once losing the strength or gut punch of the emotions behind them.

In Evangeline, too, Tompkins does something remarkable by taking a practically feral, destitute girl and showing readers how painful it can be to accept something good when all you’ve known is bad. Evangeline is a well-written teen, but even more than that, she is a beautifully written victim, who has learned to navigate the ins and outs of abuse, poverty and hopelessness like a sadness cartographer. So fine-tuned is her grasp of her landscape that she perceives even the smallest kindness to be a trap. Tompkins is sharp in her characterization of Evangeline, but she is also respectful, never rushing the character toward a breakthrough and pacing out every downslide so that it becomes a learning moment.

As utterly moving and poignant as the book is, I found some of Tompkins' choices a bit jarring. While Isaac’s chapters are written in first-person, Evangeline’s are in third, and the transition between the two could be distracting. There were also some subplots, like the plight of Isaac’s coworker, that felt extraneous to the main storyline. With so much potential and tension in the relationships between Isaac, Evangeline and Lorrie, anything that took the spotlight away from them felt vestigial.

Perfect for readers of THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH, HOUSE ON FIRE and WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, WHAT COMES AFTER is an impressive debut by an author who is clearly here to stay.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 16, 2021

What Comes After
by JoAnne Tompkins

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593086007
  • ISBN-13: 9780593086001