Just absolutely devastating. But of course, I have come to expect that of Louise O’Neill.
After two brilliant forays into young adult novels, both well worth a read, O’Neill brought her unstinting criticism of patriarchy to her first adult novel Almost Love in the best and most scathing way possible. After the Silence is a more-than-worthy second adult novel. While both have passing similarities—depictions of emotional abuse, gaslighting, male partners treating women poorly—O’Neill looks at these issues from an entirely different angle. She forces us to confront not the darkest parts of relationships (particularly with men); rather she forces us to confront the greyest parts, the parts we seldom talk about because to admit they are present would be to admit our entire model of romance is broken.
Hopefully the description of the book is enough, but in case it isn’t, seriously, massive trigger warnings for partner abuse, gaslighting, controlling and manipulative behaviour, murder, etc. I struggled with this at times, and I have never had a romantic relationship, let alone a toxic or abusive one—I can only imagine how triggering this book would be for some people who have, and you should really, really think hard about whether you want to expose yourself to that before you read this.
But to be clear: if you are up for it, After the Silence is a stone-cold masterpiece.
On one level, this is a psychological thriller. A documentary crew arrives on the small island of Inisrún. They are investigating the unsolved murder of Nessa Crowley, who ten years ago was found dead during a party on the storm-embattled island. The islanders blame Henry Kinsella and, by association, his wife Keelin, who is our protagonist. As the story progresses, we must wonder whether or not Henry is guilty—and if so, is Keelin covering for him, an unreliable narrator?—or if the mystery goes deeper. In actuality, Henry is guilty of many other things—whether or not he is the murderer is not something I will spoil.
Do not expect a simple thriller here though. Almost from page one, O’Neill makes it clear that the psychology in this psychological thriller is far more focused on Keelin Kinsella’s relationship with Henry. The brutality of O’Neill’s depiction of abuse is in its very mediocrity. Keelin, having left a physically abusive husband and subsequently trained as a domestic violence counsellor, believes she knows what abuse is. So when Henry begins to control her, to encourage her not to leave Inisrún, cut her off from her credit cards, her phone, her friends, medicate her—all “for her own good”—and because he does it gradually enough, Keelin doesn’t see what’s going on. Or maybe she does, but she is too afraid to acknowledge it. Because you can’t forget the death of Nessa Crowley. You can’t forget the way it ostracized the Kinsellas, and how, against such opposition, they would necessarily feel the need for solidarity. So not only might Keelin feel like she can’t run—she also doesn’t really have anywhere to run to.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll turn these pages while your skin crawls, and you’ll want to yell at the book, as if it could transmit your words to Keelin: leave him, run, wake up and realize what he’s doing. Every moment of reading After the Silence is a visceral moment of feeling Keelin’s sense of swimming through lead.
If that were it, if this book were just a portrayal of a woman being gaslit and manipulated by her husband in the decade following a murder, then the book would be good. But what makes this book sublime is how O’Neill connects the dots for us between Henry’s behaviour and our patriarchal society.
I think there is room to read Henry’s behaviour in two ways. On the one hand, he knows exactly what he is doing: he is the mastermind, the manipulator, cunningly controlling his wife for his own ends. On the other hand, I prefer the idea that Henry is somewhat oblivious to the harm in his behaviour—that is to say, he is not naive and he knows that he is good at manipulating people, but he genuinely believes that this is what love is. We see this throughout the book. He uses all the right phrases, condemns obvious incidents of sexism, tells Keelin she needs to listen to him “express his feelings” because isn’t communication important in a relationship? Henry is the epitome of the woke misogynist.
This is the true danger lurking at the heart of After the Silence. The problem is not the women who are abused. And without trying to excuse individual responsibility, the men who are the abusers are a symptom of the ultimate problem: our society enables abuse, particularly the abuse of women at the hands of male partners. It does this in multiple ways. Some are pretty obvious when you think about it—the way abused people can so easily be isolated in an age where we all seem connected at the hip through our phones, the victim-blaming and lack of supports to people who actually leave their situation of abuse. But most of th ways our society enables abuse are far more pernicious, and Henry is a textbook case. This is particularly evident towards the end, when we hear more about his backstory. No one taught Henry how to have a healthy relationship. He learned bad lessons, built atop a tower of white and male privilege. In Henry’s mind, his love for Keelin justifies how he behaves towards her, because our society teaches men that to love a woman is to want to control her, to put her on a pedestal, to bind her to you so that you can admire her and praise her—but on your terms and in a way that can never threaten your own success. Just think back to the vast majority of romances and romantic comedies with these kinds of messages.
Echoes of this theme abound throughout the book. Consider how Nessa and her two sisters were mythologized as the beautiful, slightly alien Crowley Girls. From an early age, we teach girls—intentionally and unintentionally—that their beauty is tied to their self worth. Nessa, even at 20, was still a very young, very inexperienced woman. She gets taken advantage of, not because she lacks agency, but because the messaging she received for the first two decades of her life have twisted that sense of agency. What we view as unacceptable she views as acceptable because it validates the messages we have told her for 20 years.
Did Henry Kinsella kill Nessa Crowley? Does she ever get justice? You’ll have to read the book to find out! I won’t lie: it will be a difficult read, but it is so worthwhile. O’Neill engages me, gets me thinking about these issues, all while telling a deep, rich, dark story. This is the power of fiction at full strength; what would be dry or too stark when laid out in non-fiction becomes moving, terrifying, paramount when told through fiction’s lens. After the Silence is an abiding story of abuse, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and the tolls that these take on women—up to and including their very lives.