Before and After by Andrew Shanahan
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
On the day 601lb Ben Stone is due to be taken to hospital for life saving treatment, a mysterious illness hits turning people into aggressive monsters. Instead of getting the help he needs, Ben is trapped in his room, minus the wall was removed so fireman could winch him from his fourth-floor apartment. Anyone who sees Ben tries to attack him, screaming insults about his weight to his face. After hiding from the world in his apartment by online groceries and takeaway food deliveries, Ben must learn to face himself in order to survive.
This is an interesting story, told in two timelines. The first is after the incident, the chronological account of events leading from Ben as being so overweight he needs his leg amputated to save his life, to six months and six days after The Event. The second is a series of flashbacks that are not in chronological order, but which reveal the how Ben has come to his current point in life. This could be the last interaction with a person before The Event or something that happened as a teenager. So, while there is no order to these flashbacks, each one is relevant, deepening our understanding of Ben.
This isn’t a long book, but it is heavy. Ben spent his whole life hiding from the real world, but with the removal of the wall in his apartment and without technology to provide him with all his needs, Ben has time to reflect on how he has reached 601lb. There are lots of moments where Ben faces ridicule and insensitivity because of his weight, which is difficult to read. No matter who we are, there are times in our lives where we all judge someone based on their appearance without understanding the journey that person has been on. It will make you question how you view other people.
But it is a happy story because it is also about the good of unconditional love. Throughout, Ben’s mother is a positive influence in his life and she never gives up on him even though she isn’t there anymore. It shows the power of understanding, the importance of not neglecting the emotional side of an obese person in the process of helping them.
On the one hand, this is a post-apocalyptic story about an obese person learning to love themselves, and on the other it is about the horror overweight people face on a daily basis just opening their front door. Thought-provoking and inspiring, Before and After works on many levels.