In After the Parade (September 2015), we meet Aaron Englund at age 41, as he is about to leave his older lover, Walter, with whom he had a twenty-year relationship. His thoughts meander about a neighbor who may miss him. We soon learn that ruminating about the effect his actions have on others is how Aaron assesses himself.
After a traumatic childhood—his abusive father falls from the back of a parade float and dies, his mother abandons him— Aaron had found safety in Walter’s life. But safety eventually became complacency and then endurance. There is a quiet intensity in the writing as Aaron grows from a damaged boy into a man not quite sure how he fits into the world. It is this search for understanding that propels the story.
The way forward is often explained through the stories shared by the outsiders and misfits he encounters. We meet many through the course of the novel, processing their experiences and relevance as Aaron does. He is trying to learn the language of life, a point made by the job he takes after leaving Walter, teaching English to non-English speakers. In this singular capacity, Aaron is able to clarify the nuances of human behavior to others, and ultimately for himself.
Ostlund has an ear for prose that is witty, ironic, and beautifully evocative. The forward movement of the novel has a light touch, while the backstory of Aaron’s early years carries significant narrative weight. She weaves these elements together in a compelling way.
This is a protagonist with little burning desire for anything. Even finding the mother that abandoned him seemed of mild interest. At times, I was impatient with all the digressions that moved the story away from Aaron. I wanted this man to take more control of the events he experiences—from being a punching bag to enduring an apartment substandard by any reasonable American standard. “Don’t rock the boat” seems to be his mantra and we pull for him to get hit by a tidal wave.
All in all, I enjoyed this quiet, meandering book about finding your place in the world, learning from those around you, and ultimately accepting who you are.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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