In her latest novel, Rosellen Brown (Civil Wars, Tender Mercies) takes the lurid stuff of tabloid news and turns it into a masterful American tragedy. Jacob Reiser, a 17-year-old boy who has done nothing more delinquent in his life than run up ”a couple of three-dollar overdue bills on his library books,” is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend. ”I couldn’t imagine him making real footsteps in the real world,” broods Ben, the suspect’s father, during the first leaden hours after the body is discovered bludgeoned and half-buried in fresh snow alongside a country road. ”I mean, I couldn’t really believe anything any of us did made a difference. So this all felt like someone else’s nightmare: I refused to believe it was mine, or, rather, ours.”
But it is their nightmare, one so terrible and dark that the Reiser family’s life is irreparably destroyed. With Jacob the focus of a nationwide manhunt, his parents and younger sister are suddenly, and possibly forever, ”sentenced to sadness.” As usual, Brown imagines her characters so completely that their solitude and the fragile silence that separates each from the other become as dramatic as their awkward conversations.
Once Jacob is captured and ordered to stand trial as an adult, the family—stunned by the boy’s private confession and kept under ”hostile quarantine” by their vengeful New Hampshire neighbors—begins to drift apart morally. Ben—the artist, ”the nonprofit one, the tumultuous argumentative one with the New York accent and the leftist politics”—will take any risk, including the destruction of bloody evidence, to protect his son: ”In the end, someone would have to be forgiven, either Jacob for what he had done, or me for having done nothing. I’d rather…spend my forgiveness on him.”
Carolyn—the physician, and by her own account a woman ”not really forgiving. Or changeable”—wants the truth to come out, no matter how painful. Or catastrophic: ”I’m leaving you, she thought, my best darling boy. I’m abandoning you to yourself. It was facing-up time, and if he came through it…he wouldn’t be her boy anymore, or his father’s, either.”
Judith—the 12-year-old, the little sister for whom ”crime used to be a television word, or something you met in games or in the movies”—sees Jacob as the betrayer, the bringer of ruin and humiliation. As the court date approaches she craves to see him punished.
”What is impossible in this world?” Carolyn Reiser asks herself at one point during her long ordeal. ”Is there anything that cannot happen?” The answers, Rosellen Brown suggests, are ”nothing” and ”no.” Before and After is a novel that’s emotionally taxing, even punishing (I had bad dreams about it for three nights running), but it’s also one that makes us realize just how enigmatic ordinary things like family love and loyalties are. What more can we ask from a work of fiction?