Studies in the Hereafter, Sean Bernard
Red Hen Press, 2015
Reviewed by Kayla Greenwell
What happens to us after we die? Heaven? Hell? Nothing? Personally I hope there is infinite Netflix and the inability to get cavities—but regardless we all have our own theories. What happens, though, when what we expect turns out to be less than hoped for? Studies in the Hereafter by Sean Bernard answers these questions in a well-crafted and unique debut.
The protagonist, a denizen of heaven, is unfulfilled with how it has all turned out—stuck playing golf and working in an office, he’s not sure what’s missing. His job in heaven is to compile reports on the lives of people still living—and the novel deals with both his life and his report on Carmelo and Tetty. The reader experiences both the protagonist’s life and Carmelo’s and is simultaneously a mystery, a love story, and a story of journey for truth.
Bernard has many previous publications, but this is his first novel. Although this is his first publication in this form, the story is well paced and structurally complex. I have to admit, many times I read a novel I can guess the plot before the middle of the book—and I am left with no surprises. Hereafter is different that way. I found myself unsure of what direction Bernard was taking me, and I enjoyed having to suspend my belief for periods of time to follow him.
Perhaps what I like most about the book is the development and voice of Bernard’s characters. It is easy to fall into the trap of blending voices and having characters come out sounding the same—but Bernard resists. Using both a separate point of view and word choice, he creates two totally individual characters, although they do share similar struggles at times. For instance, take a look at Carmelo’s storyline:
The sheep headed north without prompting, their gait steady, urgent, moving in tight and certain single file…Carmelo followed in the rear, tethered by the rope, and he thought of Tetty…She’d been reluctant to relocate to California even before they’d gone; after her resistance only grew. She cut her hair short and stayed indoors while Carmelo taught classes and went to meetings, let her skin pale with lonesomeness.
The reader gets a sense of conservative, closed-off confusion of the strange academic that Carmelo certainly is. But then there is the protagonist’s storyline:
“I take pride in compiling reports—alone. Most people at work differ from me in this regard, and that’s fine. I don’t judge them. (He totally judges them) It’s usually true their reports are closer to perfect than mine are, but in a dull way, seamless, without the jagged edges of life….On I don’t know how many Saturdays Faz has come up to me at the nineteenth hole, eyes desperate, begging, ‘would you look this over’…and I’m like, Faz, I’m drinking a beer, it’s the weekend. Shove off.”
With such an overflowing of voice from these characters, there is never any confusion about who you are reading about.
Like a swirled soft-serve cone, Studies in the Hereafter, blends two well-crafted and charming stories together for one consumable treat. On one side you have the darkly humorous mystery and on the other a deeply introspective journey of human nature—a quirky but enjoyable read.