“Evil isn’t a person. . . . It’s not a political group either. Or a religion like some people think. Evil is a force. Like gravity. It acts on all of us. We’re all vulnerable to it.”
In Port Furlong, Washington, Isaac Balch speaks these words without knowing he will soon experience one of the greatest evils a parent could ever face. Eight days after Isaac’s teenage son, Daniel, fails to come home from football practice, Daniel’s childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Jonah, dies by suicide. In a note, Jonah confesses to Daniel’s murder.
Weeks later, a 16-year-old girl turns up in Isaac’s yard. The bereaved father can’t bring himself to abandon Evangeline McKensey to the cool fall night; she looks as lost as he feels, her unwashed state and not-so-hidden pregnancy suggesting she needs a home. When Isaac has to leave town for a family matter, he risks the discomfort of asking Lorrie Geiger—the mother of his son’s killer—to check in on Evangeline.
In What Comes After, debut novelist JoAnne Tompkins takes readers to dark places in her characters’ psyches: Isaac’s unwillingness to grapple with the complexities of the people closest to him; Jonah’s hatred of his friend; and Evangeline’s growing understanding of what she will do to survive, and what a mother can and cannot walk away from. They’re all learning who to trust, navigating the evil forces that permeate the world.
Tompkins’ experience in the legal system (she was a mediator and judicial officer) exposed her to great tragedy, and this background informs her empathetic exploration of her characters’ lives. She writes about mental health and faith, particularly Isaac’s Quaker beliefs, without sentimentalizing or damning her characters’ experiences. In the novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.
Like faith, evil is also part of the human experience. As the people of Port Furlong grapple with the evil act committed by one of their own, Tompkins poses questions of morality and motivation, nature and nurture, and how people move forward.
When Isaac explains the concept of evil, he points to the tumors that killed his mother. “My mother had cancer, she suffered cancer, but no one ever thought she was cancer itself. . . . Despite all the evidence.”