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Ms TJ, What Cool Books @WCB Library

After the Fire

'After the Fire' is a brave and dramatic departure for Will Hill, well known for his heart pounding supernatural horror adventure series 'Department 19'. He has turned his talents to capturing a chilling psychological tale inspired by the horrific real life events of the Waco siege in Texas in 1993 which resulted in widespread destruction and devastation as 82 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died after a 2 month stand-off with US government agents which ended in a blazing inferno.

Following an explosive and disturbing opening, the reader is invited into the dark world of Moonbeam, a 17 year old survivor of traumatic events, who has been subject to harrowing human rights' abuses perpetrated by the sinister and charismatic cult leader Father John. Hill paints an incisive portrait of a deeply conflicted girl whom he describes as "strong, vulnerable, complicated, sarcastic and brilliant." It is a testament to his skills as an author and researcher that she is an unreliable narrator, keeping secrets from her interviewers, the sympathetic psychiatrist Dr Hernandez and the suspicious Agent Carlyle, who are in turn not revealing the full story to her, locking the reader out and concealing the truth from herself.

Hill chooses to make the reader uncomfortable by pitching them from scenes of screaming and bleeding bodies to broken streams of consciousness to a sudden format of question, answer and routine, interspersed with flashbacks of life at the base in the Californian desert where Moonbeam resided in a religious community. The result is that it takes a while to acclimatise to locked rooms and therapy sessions reflecting what a survivor might have felt in that environment bombarded by inner voices, chaotic thoughts and haunting dreams.

Will is clearly passionate about his subject. He has said that the underlying theme of his novel was the question, "What was it like to live inside that compound believing you were in mortal danger from the outside world?" These fears are represented by the vitriolic diatribes Moonbeam experiences from Father John (whose voice is trapped inside her head) decrying "servants of the serpent" and "heretics." Hill is careful to raise the issue of the terror to trust outsiders, experienced by victims of cult leaders, who have systemically had every right due to them as a human being stripped away. As Moonbeam says,

"I believed in him, and in the Legion, with all my heart, and part of me misses- will always miss- the certainty that came with that."

'After the Fire' expertly explores the clash of Moonbeam's inner and outer worlds juxtaposing the frustrations of her inner dialogue with the painfully slow revelations she feels she can utter. Her confidences provide a window into the effects on other survivors from the Legion also going through Dr Hernandez's 'process' , the lasting damage of Father John's legacy and the base motives behind the nefarious leader's actions. As the plot unfolds Moonbeam gives insight into the journeys of Honey, Luke and Nate, the reasons for the behaviour of the adult Legion members and the rationale of the draconian Centurions. What has happened to her mother? Why were doors in the base unlocked at night? Why were they locked in the first place? What is in Father John's secret room? Are Moonbeam's recollections reliable? Can the reader handle the truth?

This challenging book captures not only Moonbeam's uncertainties and darkest fears but also the humanity and genuine emotions of her interviewers who become deeply affected as her horrific story unfolds and other events occur causing them to become increasingly reliant upon her tenacity and wisdom. It is a thought provoking novel because it presents wide ranging human rights' issues, Moonbeam's and the younger survivors' treatment at the 'compound' (she hates that name) being in direct contravention of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Hill's powerful YA novel honours the author's determination to respect abuse survivors by, "treating the story with honesty and sensitivity, not diminishing the horrors that Moonbeam suffered but not sensationalising them either." His plot development, characterisation and sensitivity are evident in his carefully chosen words. He significantly points out that Moonbeam has the right to be respected. She refuses to be patronised and she has just as many questions as her therapist and Agent Carlyle that deserve to be answered.

It is no surprise that 'After the Fire' has been shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal. The narrative will enable shadowers to talk about important concepts such as free will and the rights to "faith, survival, acceptance, freedom, safety, a good life, privacy, healthcare, freedom of choice, access to education and information, peace and order" (Amnesty International notes-'Exploring Human Rights' Through Books'). Hill's book is meticulously researched and delicately explored with the end result being that Moonbeam gets under the reader's skin evoking a myriad of emotions. 4.75/5 Stars

Posted on: 16th April 2018 at 07:52 pm

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