There is such deftness to this novel, such sureness of approach and lightness of writing, that an honest critic must begin with an apology. Sorry, dear reader, for the envy that infringes on the following; it’s hard to stumble along in review of such an accomplished work.
Matt Cohen’s latest novel follows on the funny, sad, and quirky heels of his 1997 title Last Seen, which was a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Award.
Elizabeth and After follows two families – the cursed McKelveys and the blessed Richardsons – whose men, linked through several generations, form the dominant pattern in this crazy quilt of a novel set in a small Ontario town (pop. 684). Enriching this design are the many secondary characters – eccentrics and loners, some who are gold-hearted, and others who are cold-hearted. In short, they are silent men and supple women who are redeemed from being mere stock conventions of small-town realism (and thank God for that) through Cohen’s attention to motivation: Why do some nurture wrong over right? Why does the heart rule the head? Can the future cut free of the past?
This makes Elizabeth and After sound heavy when it is, rather, compelling and sad and erotic and funny. Only a second reading reveals the careful plotting that sets up Carl McKelvey’s return to the town and family that he fled. Little recurring tics and animals and liquor and smells and weather link the villagers, who long ago dismissed Carl as a no-hoper McKelvey without noticing the depth of character masked by the booze and fights. These remembered, repeated details spawn echoes, set up tragedy, produce red herrings, and compress 150 years of history into a half-dozen points of view (my one cavil is that Cohen’s steam falters as he mechanically switches perspectives to introduce the villagers through each other’s eyes). Through Elizabeth, a central character in the book, and after her, a son, a widower, and a lover, we witness the deceptions that only kith and kin can deal in the name of love.