Matt Cohen's latest novel, Elizabeth and After, takes place in West Gull, a small town near Kingston. West Gull is not the sort of quaint, genteel community that we have come to expect from the rural Canadian novel. While our writers tend to cram their locales with intellectuals or, alternately, one sensitive soul who is constricted by the ignorance that surrounds him or her, Cohen neatly tiptoes around this cliché. His heroine, Elizabeth, is a Jewish schoolteacher with a fondness for Tolstoy and a habit of naming her cattle after Jane Eyre and her peers. Her son, Carl, is the other dominant consciousness of the novel whose unskilled alcoholism provides Cohen with ample material to create a complex and fascinating portrait.
Elizabeth and After begins with Elizabeth's funeral, but it doesn't rush to tell her story. Instead, we are given an excerpt from a typically generic eulogy and the cause of death: "an unplanned trip through a suddenly stationary windshield attached to a car that had accordioned into a large oak tree."
Cohen then leaps forward some seven years to describe a Quixotic adventure of William McKelvey, Elizabeth's widower. Early one morning, he sneaks out of the local retirement home, steals an old Pontiac that bears an uncanny resemblance to his old car, and takes it for a joyride. After visiting his old farmhouse (which has been renovated and modernized beyond all recognition), he drives the car out along the backroads, eventually flinging it into the shallows of Dead Swede Lake.
This episode is followed by Carl's return after a "voluntary" absence of three years to take up the parenting of his young daughter. West Gull is not quite ready to embrace him, however; he has a reputation as a violent, unreliable, and dissipated young man.
Carl's attempt to construct a life for himself is the concern of most of the novel. But his story is overshadowed by the town's fragmentary and enigmatic memories of his mother. The ensuing tale is complex, violent, and deeply humanistic. Carl's inner life is constantly in shambles, and his attempts to set it in order are fascinating to watch.
Elizabeth emerges from the psychological rubble of West Gull like a ghost-a handful of memories of her secret lives neatly blended to create a portrait of a vivid, loving, and remarkable woman. The other characters make up a motley cross-section of a small town, with cruelty and generosity combined in roughly equal portions. Many of their actions are laughably petty, but this does not detract from the very real sense of tragedy that haunts the novel. Cohen's ability to introduce complicated intertexts--including Anna Karenina and the Hebrew Bible-adds another level of complexity without being intrusive, and enjoying Elizabeth and After certainly does not require a competent knowledge of Russian literature.
Cohen's prose may not be extravagant, but it is striking in a profoundly physical manner: the geography of West Gull, the objects and buildings that confine human life, and the bodies of the characters have an intense presence. Despite his fascination with memory and death, the author seldom ventures into these areas in abstract terms. The narrative voice never defines the characters in terms of labels, and when Carl calls himself "white trash" or Elizabeth is remembered as a "Jew from Kingston", these words leap off the page with the force of physical objects. This technique gives Elizabeth and After a very satisfying unity: West Gull and its citizens (living, dead, and absent) form an organic whole that is as complex and self-destructive as Carl's own consciousness. Not that Elizabeth and After is a homogeneous novel: it tells a single story, yes, but that story is made up of many minds.
There are very few flaws in Cohen's novel. He occasionally gets bogged down in minutiae, but this doesn't detract from the book's overall effect and may even heighten its emotional complexity. The only glaring problem isn't Cohen's fault at all. Knopf Canada has managed to package the book in the blandest manner possible: the jacket, blurb, and title are extraordinarily generic, and readers unfamiliar with Cohen's impressive novels, Last Seen and The Bookseller, may never bother to pick it up. This would be a shame. Matt Cohen has a gift for portraying characters that should be cliché with powers of observation and insight that make them deliciously new, and Elizabeth and After a fearful and empathetic novel.
Jack Illingworth writes, co-edits ça met égal, and lives in Toronto and Thunder Bay.