After her veterinarian dad dies, sixteen-year-old Iris Wight must leave her beloved Maine to live on a North Carolina farm with her hardbitten aunt and a cousin she barely knows. Iris, a vegetarian and animal lover, immediately clashes with Aunt Sue, who mistreats the livestock, spends Iris’s small inheritance, and thinks nothing of striking Iris for the smallest offense. Things come to a head when Iris sets two young goats free to save them from slaughter, and an enraged Aunt Sue orders her brutish son, Book, to beat Iris senseless - a horrific act that lands Book and his mother in jail. Sent to live with an offbeat foster family and their "dooking" ferrets, Iris must find a way to take care of the animals back at the farm, even if it means confronting Aunt Sue. Powerful and deeply moving, this compelling novel affirms the redemptive power of animals and the resilience of the human spirit.
OPINION: 5 STARS
The Short Version:
Empowering yet gutting, What Comes After is a phenomenal tale of perseverance over suffering. With a fantastically created protagonist, high in likability beyond the sympathy that comes with being abused, and a well handled supporting cast of characters both good and bad, Watkins has woven a story heavier on hope and beauty than anything else. Playing heavily on internal development and reactions to external events, and a prose that gives strong voice to Iris while never shying away from the grit of things, What Comes After is a stellar, emotional read.
The Extended Version:
Iris is a great character with a huge inner strength even at the start. Quiet and self sufficient, she comes across as being older than her years early on, for reasons beyond losing her father. Her love of her dad, along with the rampant and great childhood memories scattered throughout go far to build her personality, lending readers a spry, yet gentle, protagonist. Though she takes some things quieter than others, Iris is far from a doormat, and her growing frustration leads to fighting back in a way that definitely does more harm than good. The point of her breaking is clear and understandable, and Watkins handles the fallout perfectly, yet doesn’t let things stall out in response to it.
Aunt Sue is, at the surface and even a few levels under, an atrocious person, and someone to easily dislike. Despite this, Watkins gives just enough further layers to shed at least some light into her behaviors and personality without ever making excuses or condoning it. Book, too, has far more depth than it would initially seem, going even beyond what is seen of his mom.
Also notable in the cast is Littleberry, a boy at Iris’ new school who takes interest in her both as a friend and more. His persistence with her, and willingness to help and support her even in the face of bigger things, speaks so much for who he is, and also goes far to help flesh out Iris as well. The interactions between these two cover every range of emotions, each one handled perfectly.
Though brutal at times, and certainly never avoiding the description and magnitude of some of the events, Watkins still handles the full scope of things sensitively and poignantly. Particularly through the goats does the reader really get a look into Iris’ inner self, and the healing they incite in her jumps off the pages as strongly as any gritty, rough scene. With a bold personality for each goat, and making them as vivid and memorable as any human character, Watkins has done a magnificent job of blending the animal aspect with Iris’ story.
The writing is strong, giving a bold voice to Iris while also building the emotional air at any given scene perfectly in a way that lets the reader feel everything Iris does. With some fantastic descriptions, and an easy prose to fall into, Watkins’ has demonstrated his talent and abilities both in character building and story telling.
Handling some rough subjects, yet focusing far more on Iris’ inner strength, determination and perseverance, What Comes After is a beautifully scripted tale of moving beyond something shattering. With clear motivations from all parties, Watkins has created a cast of characters are memorable as the most gutting of events within the book. The goats themselves are boldly scripted, and will bring plenty of smiles to reader’s faces right along side the grin they give Iris every time. Pulling in several different elements and blending them smoothly, What Comes After is more than a book about abuse, and is a complete must read.
Source: ARC received from author/publisher in exchange for an honest review
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 334 pages
Publication Date: April 12, 2011