Six years after the release of For Holly, and after a period where she swore she would never write again, Tanya Byrne is publishing a new YA novel about love, death and what makes life worth living.
Afterlove (Hodder Children’s Books), which will be on bookshelves in July, is about the relationship between two girls, Ash and Poppy, and is split into two sections: Before, which is about how the girls meet and fall in love; and After, which is set in the wake of Ash being hit and killed by a car. According to legend, the last person to die on New Year’s Eve becomes the grim reaper for their parish, so Ash is then the grim reaper for Brighton, assigned to adolescent deaths. The love story does not end there, however, and, without giving away any spoilers, Poppy and Ash reconnect. As Byrne says, “they fall in love in life and they fall in love again in death”.
The novel has been a long time in the making. Byrne wrote her third novel For Holly several years ago when her mother was very sick, and was editing the manuscript while sitting in intensive care. Her mother died the day the book came out. “I thought that was it,” she says. “I moved to Brighton and got a proper job. It was my agent, Claire Wilson, who was adamant that I would find my way back."
Slowly, she realised she wanted to write a book about death and grief (“I had to write my way through it,” she says) but then realised the story was becoming about life and second chances. “A lot of people, when they lose someone close to them, think, ‘If I could have one more day with that person, what would I do?’ It’s essentially tragic what happens to these two young girls, but they get an ending to their story. A lot of people don’t get that.”
As Byrne says, the story is teeming with life and the small things that make life living—a bright lipstick, a fluffy coat from Primark, Ash’s Dad’s special bolognese sauce—and Brighton, with its sights and smells, is almost a third character in itself. Byrne’s love for the city, which she says almost “saved” her, is palpable on the page. “When I moved here I was in a really bad way because I’d lost my mum and I had just come out. [Brighton] was my port in a storm. I wouldn’t have been able to write this book if I hadn’t come here.”
A two-way street
Ash is, like Byrne, of Guyanese descent. She lives in a small flat with her parents and sister, and has a happy life before the accident, with a family that loves her and a great best friend. Byrne wanted to write a book about a working-class girl who has a happy life; one who can bring as much to Poppy’s life as Poppy brings to Ash’s. Poppy is from a wealthy background but her life is lacking in love: she is sent to boarding school in Brighton, despite her parents living in the city, and she has to sneak into her own home.
In fact the novel as a whole is rich with female characters. Most of the important people in Ash’s life are female, as are the team of reapers she finds herself working with in the second part of the book. That wasn’t deliberate, says Byrne, she just finds the dynamic between women really interesting. She also wanted to explore the concept of ‘found families’. In one way Poppy is Ash’s found family, as are the reapers in the second part of the book, she says.
In the book Ash’s grandparents had experienced racism when they came to the UK, which makes Ash’s mother worry about her daughter’s sexuality, even though she does accept it. “It’s not that her mum doesn’t approve of Ash being gay because she is a Catholic, it’s more that she doesn’t want her to go through what her parents went through. Even though homophobia is different from racism, it’s still another form of discrimination.”
Unlike Ash, Byrne didn’t come out to her mother before she died. “That scene where Ash comes out to her mum, that’s a conversation I often wondered if I was going to have with my mum.” She also realised she now could be the same age as the mother, so imagined herself in that position, too.
The second part of the book was easier to write, even though certain scenes, like one where a young homeless girl who has died asks to go home, still make the author well up. Teenagers deserve honesty, even when you are writing about a subject like death, she says. “The ending might not be a traditionally happy one, but it gives the reader hope that things will be OK.”
A two-way street
Byrne began writing several years ago after a career in radio with the BBC. Writing was something she “always did” but she didn’t consider turning professional until a teacher on a creative writing course took her to one side to say her writing was of a quality that was rarely seen. Once she had a draft of her first book, Heart-Shaped Bruise, things moved really quickly: she finished the manuscript in October, signed with Wilson a week later, and sold the book to Headline in November. The book came out the following May.
She then published Follow Me Down and For Holly, and also contributed to Little Tiger’s anthology A Change is Gonna Come and the collaborative novel Floored, written with Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Non Pratt, Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Williamson and Eleanor Wood. Her adult festive romance Someday at Christmas, published using the pen name Lizzie Byron, was released last October.
Afterlove is, however, to be her first book to be turned into a TV show. Two Rivers Media has acquired the rights and Byrne is now in the process of turning the story into a script with Emma Reeves, whose TV credits include “The Story of Tracy Beaker” and “Belonging”. “I’ve not written a script before, so she’s helping me with that,” she says. “I’m really excited. They really want my input, which is one of the reasons I went with [Two Rivers]. This is something that’s been in my head for so long, I would hate to see it diluted in any way.”
In the future there will be more Lizzie Byron books, and Byrne is thinking about doing something inspired by the fallout of Covid and what happens when teenagers, who, after having virtual relationships for so long, have to get out into the real world again.
For now, however, she hopes her book about death will offer solace to readers who need it. It took three years to write because she wanted to articulate it in a way that was hopeful, she says. “I hope the ending makes people feel there is more to death than ‘the end’. They will be OK... I hope I was able to make people feel less alone.
“I hope the reader is left with some hope that Ash and Poppy will find one another and be together again.”
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