Life is seldom straightforward and uncomplicated by troubles. Most certainly, sometimes a cataclysmic event can cause a seismic shift in the ongoing trajectory of one’s life. Such truths are most definitively the case for Eden Hall and Rafe McConnell, the female and male protagonists respectively of prolific Irish author, Sheila O’Flanagan’s, latest searingly heartbreaking, but ultimately redemptive, novel, “What Eden Did Next”.
Taking place predominantly in the city of Dublin, Ireland, in the present, this transformative novel allows us to be privy to the outer and inner lives of Eden, a thirty-two year old single mother to four year old Lila (Eden also works as a carer and calligrapher), and Rafe, a few months older than Eden, who is a single dad to six year old daughter, Lila (Rafe works in biomedical research in a research lab in Dublin).
Eden has a client, seventy-five year old Elizabeth, who lives in the vibrant and at-times “nosy” thirteen house development of Sycamore Grove in Dublin. When Elizabeth, being of a warm and welcoming disposition, gets Eden to deliver flowers and a card to her new neighbours opposite her, Rafe and Poppy, a connection and friendship, followed by a ‘linking up’, evolves between Eden and Rafe (their daughters also become firm friends).
The twist is that Eden and Rafe share a history, not immediately recognised by the two of them. On their first proper get together, down by the sea in a park in Dublin, Eden and Rafe realise that they were once childhood best friends living in the same street in Galway, although Rafe at that time went by the name Mac. As ten year old children, the pair were cruelly torn apart when Eden’s parents were killed suddenly in a car accident, and Eden was taken in reluctantly by her Aunt Trudy and Uncle Kevin to live thereafter in Dublin.
Eden and Rafe have certainly known pervasive suffering and grief as adults also. Eden’s firefighter husband, Andy, was killed in a fire five years previously, and while Eden has done her best to try and get on with her life, Andy still has her heart. Eden frequently and dutifully writes Andy letters to inform him of what is going on in her life (she keeps all the letters). She begins each letter “Darling You”, and signs off with the poignant words “Forever Yours”. Of great support to Eden are Andy’s forever interfering, but loving and caring, family, the Farellys. Valerie is the loyal, but domineering, Matriarch of the Farellys, consistently wanting the best (as she perceives it) for Eden and Lila.
As Eden tells Andy sombrely in one of the hundred letters she writes to him, “I’ve spent five years mourning the life I lost and not looking forward to the life ahead of me”. Offering wise counsel to Eden on her life is the ever-concerned and loving Elizabeth. Elizabeth thoughtfully tells the outwardly capable yet inwardly fragile and grieving Eden, “Don’t put things off…..Grab life while you can. No sense in waiting”.
Rafe has his own ‘past’ and heartache to contend with. He was living in Seattle, America, when his partner at the time, Jewel, was murdered by a crazed ex-partner. Rafe is now the legal guardian of Poppy, the loving daughter of Jewel and her killer.
Caring, yet doubting, family members of Rafe’s are wary of him being involved with Eden. For instance Rafe’s curious sister, Petra, and brother, Dommo, meet at a cafe in Dublin one day and earnestly discuss Eden and Rafe’s relationship, Petra commenting, “I wish he’d found some bright, cheerful, baggage-free woman who’d lighten up his life rather than getting involved with Eden Hall”.
Rafe, however, has no doubts about his intentions towards Eden, telling Petra in a moment of self-disclosure that he has loved Eden “Ever since I was five”.
Can Eden and Rafe, despite the Farellys’ and McConnells’ highly vexing concerns about any sort of relationship between Eden and Rafe, have any sort of future together in a world in which both have been so worn down by grief and the effort of trying to establish a ‘new’ semblance of life for themselves and Lila and Poppy? Will the Farellys and McConnells ever give Eden and Rafe their blessing, or will the staunch Farellys forever want Eden to be known as ‘Andy’s widow’ and the close-knit McConnells always want to micro-manage Rafe, as Valerie relentlessly does Eden.
“What Eden Did Next” had my heart breaking, my heart and mind mesmerised, and me inwardly cheering for Eden and Rafe – a couple who have endured so much but are ever-hopeful for a better tomorrow. Sheila has written a highly intelligent, heart-warming and copiously endearing and insightful novel that soars and uplifts (as well as breaking one’s heart). Sheila’s observations on the human psyche and disposition are stellar. This is the first Sheila O’Flanagan novel I have read, and it definitely won’t be the last. I am already looking forward to reading Sheila’s next novel. She is an author we need in the world now. I loved this book.