“This fumbling in the dark is how life will always be.”
Lori Ostlund has written one of the truest sentences in literature. Indeed, nothing is as real as the utter confusion in which we live our lives each and every day. After The Parade is Ostlund’s debut novel, published back in 2015, and what an incredible debut it is. The story follows Aaron, a gay man who leaves his partner of 20 years, Walter, in the middle of the night without a goodbye. He heads to San Francisco in order to start a new life as an ESL teacher, renting out a tiny apartment attached to a couple’s garage in which the walls are so thin, he can hear them fight night after night.
By mere summary, the plot seems rather simple, but Aaron is dealing with demons and a bruised past; his present journey to start anew weaves in and out with various memories of his past. This is where the book really shines and grabs the reader’s attention. Ostlund takes the reader on a journey of self discovery, trauma, forgiveness and love, as Aaron seeks to reconcile with his past and present circumstances. Aaron’s childhood was scarred by his abusive father and mentally ill mother, as well as his struggle with growing up gay in a small rural Minnesota town. At the beginning, all that is known about the parade is that his father fell off a float and died. What happens before the parade and the significance of “after the parade” is not revealed in its entirety until near the end, in one of the most painful scenes from the novel.
Ostlund’s greatest ability as a writer is how she can create rich, believable characters and capture the essence of their lives in a realistic way. There is no better way to describe this novel than as a character study, an examination in how people deal with pain, love and fear. The interactions between Aaron and his ESL students are humorous yet carry subtle messages about cultural differences and their value in America. Aaron’s mother is portrayed in an honest and multi-faceted way, with a fine balance between sympathetic and repulsive. Her actions, whether it be leaving Aaron as a kid or sticking by the abusive husband/father, are abhorred but also painted in a light that allows for some understanding. A family friend, who Aaron meets as a child and then later on in life, says something interesting. She tells the now grown Aaron that sometimes a person can only save themselves when they are at wits end, ,when living seems so impossible.
The aspect of the various ways in which a person can save themselves, such as Walter and Aaron’s relationship or his mother’s leaving or Aaron’s profession as a teacher, is a central theme of the novel. The uncertainty of life and the moments which shape people is the other central theme, as the novel’s set up is in the reflection of how Aaron’s past shaped him. This is a quiet novel with deeply powerful themes and issues- the LGBTQ community and their struggles, abuse, trauma recovery, bullying, violence. It is a novel that doesn’t pompously scream “look at me” to its readers, but whispers quiet truths until those whispers form a chorus of understanding.