On Michael Helm’s After James (and other puzzling novels)

“Perhaps the most brave and honest review of After James should restrict itself to two words: Read it.”

Could be that Angie Abdou got it right, when she reviewed Michael Helm’s After James and concluded with this.

Helm After James

McClelland & Stewart, 2016

But she did a fine job of reviewing it in “The Winnipeg Review” all the same.

And although it’s true that “Read It” is what one wants to say most of all, it feels like one should say so much more (which I”m guessing is why Angie Abdou kept writing, as much as her review assignment urged her onwards) .

Partly that’s because Michael Helm is following that model, too: saying so much. He makes you want to contribute.

Reading After James felt like receiving an invitation: an invitation into something as fascinating as it is complex. (Were either of those qualities lacking, the novel would be only frustrating.)

As though into a secret circle, where one is simultaneously overwhelmed by the sense of intimacy and the need to protect its fragility but also the conflicting desire to broadcast one’s fortune – the simple act of inclusion and the sense of discovery.

There are, however, other reasons to settle in. Even if one doesn’t feel this immediate sense of collaboration.

There is an air of tension from the beginning: a woman living a solitary existence, as a temporary measure, whether in response to something or in preparation for something (or both). Mysteries. Questions to answer.

And even in the first of the novel’s three parts, there is an awareness of storytelling that could heighten readers’ awareness.

Both generally: “One story rises inside another.” (You can’t help but want to look for the layers, the complexities.)

And, specificially: “Ali read the first pages. There was already a body, a gun going off, the usual dumb mystery, cheap violence. It settled her to know what the story was only an entertainment.” (Especially when the complexities are laid out on display.)

And because this description could describe the early pages of After James, readers are on alert. Immediately.

With the Borges quote from “Coleridge’s Dream”, which appears between parts one and two in the novel, readers are on high alert. Looking for the key.

“The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace, and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If this plan does not fail, someone, on a night centuries removed from us, will dream the same dream, and not suspect that others have dreamed it, and he will give it a form of marble or of music. Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one will be the key.”

But that suggests, however, that the connections can all be sussed out, simply given proper attention and time.

And, in one sense, at least, this is true; as Angie Abdou’s review reveals, some reviewers have mistakenly identified concrete connections between the characters and events in the novel’s three parts. (If you doubt the unreliability and inaccuracy of memory, Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion gives readers plenty to consider.)

After James and other puzzles

Making readers’ heads spin

But, in another sense, they are intangible and amorphous.

My notes while reading are cryptic now that weeks have passed since reading, but the first passage I copied out was this one: “Setting up blinds. It was what they did professionally. Now one might have been set for her, hidden somewhere in the current run of days.” [My emphasis]

Immediately, you can grasp the motif of pursued and prey: the threat, something burdensome and ominous.

But it’s not all motif and abstraction; by this time, readers have become invested in the woman’s character. (So, maybe it is “only an entertainment” after all.) Readers are also looking for the key.

The last passage I copied out considers another motif, a different kind of pattern, cast by shutters on the wall.

“Past the mounds formed by her feet under the sheets she watched the ruled score cast on the wall by the moon as a breeze moved the latched shutters and the slat lines shifted and fixed, shifted and fixed. In the furrowed light dimly hesitant on the wall were parade grounds, canalscapes, microchips, fork tines and barrel staves, ribs breaching a cave floor. The images fired briefly and died. A pattern held in the sequence of things never fully read or proved before the pattern changed. Some mechanism of perception could make forgetting and knowing the same.”

There were other reasons to note this passage, but I was keen to identify another pattern, that of the light and shade on the wall, which would appear in layers of light and shade coming through, like the pattern cast by a — yes, you know what I’m going to say — a blind. [See emphasis above]

Not that there is something key in this passage, not necessarily, although apparently sometimes endings can hold keys. There seems to be something.

And maybe that’s all it is: something. But it also feels a lot like everything. Which is nearly the same thing. Isn’t it?

Handwritten Notes After James

Looking for patterns – and keys!

After James is not the only tricksy novel I’ve been reading.

Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child is a messy thing. “All I’m doing is comparing my own set of misunderstandings to the misunderstandings of others. All I am doing is wishing that I were not what I am. All I am doing is constructing a story that might be told about me when I have given up hearing the stories of others.”

Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness is about piecing together all the parts from 1939 to 2010 which unify a set of characters (and here, at least, things do fit, but there is some assembly required).

And David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream  is filled with so many 9’s that I was dizzied by them in the world around for days afterward and here, too, a sense of stitched seamlessness triumphs: “Endings are simple but every beginning is made by the beginning before.”

“Words grow out of the world and then back into it, made of the very history they string together.”

Stitched seamlessness: my two words for a whole lot of satisfaction.

Little wonder After James was one of my favourite reads of 2016.

I only wish I could better explain why. So, I guess I”m back to this.

Read. It.



  1. Resh Susan February 7, 2017 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    Great review. I am hearing about the book for the first time and I really want to read it now

    • Buried In Print February 21, 2017 at 2:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Susan. It’s his third book and now I want to read everything!

  2. Stefanie February 2, 2017 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    I am intrigued by the sound of After James! I added it to my library list. And thanks for reminding me I want to read some David Mitchel this year. I should go pull the books of his I have on my shelves and haven’t read and put them somewhere so I see them and will remember.

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2017 at 5:05 pm - Reply

      Have you read him before and now want to read more? Or is it a case of someone you’ve just been meaning to get to for ages? I’m about halfway into Cloud Atlas now, at the point where a lot of people got frustrated apparently (as I recall). His writing has never annoyed me yet, other than occasionally wishing that I was smarter (which can get annoying), and although I haven’t made any promises to myself about it, I think I might read through the rest of his books this year (to make it easier to spot the connections).

  3. Laura Frey February 2, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Ahh I love a review that references other reviews! And okay, okay, on the TBR it goes…

    • Buried In Print February 3, 2017 at 5:01 pm - Reply

      Keep it in mind for a buddy-read cuz it’ll make you want to discuss it for sure! Thanks, Laura.

  4. Naomi February 1, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Ack. You’ve made me want to read this… right now. But I have a huge library stack to get through first. I need a reminder in a couple of months! (There should be a reader-reminder service, sort of like wake-up calls, shouldn’t there?)

    • Buried In Print February 1, 2017 at 6:15 pm - Reply

      If I say there is no reader-reminder service, will you start reading it right now, with Ack’s erupting whilst you turn pages?

      • Naomi February 3, 2017 at 10:12 am - Reply

        Okay, I put a hold on it! But it’s ILL so it better not come yet! 🙂

        • Buried In Print February 3, 2017 at 5:00 pm - Reply

          Oh, well, sheesh, I was just asking. But, okay, if you really want to read it…. 😀

  5. theresa February 1, 2017 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    I’m just reading it now, savouring each sentence…

    • Buried In Print February 1, 2017 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      I find myself wanting to know what page you’re on, as if, somehow, just by knowing that you’re there, part of me could be reading it again for the first time too.

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