YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review

Facing the Past in a Small Ontario Town

ELIZABETH AND AFTER by Matt Cohen; Picador $25, 384 pages


Matt Cohen died last year of cancer at 57 soon after this, his 13th novel, was published in his native Canada. He must have been sick during the writing of it, but nothing about "Elizabeth and After" is feeble or death-haunted; rather, it's a lively story, bursting with juice, quirky and unpredictable.

Cohen's hero, Carl McKelvey, returns to his hometown of West Gull, Ontario, three years after he divorced his wife, Chrissy, and left for Vancouver, apparently resigned to the family pattern of drinking, fighting and economic failure. He comes back to be with his preteen daughter, Lizzie, aware that a price must be paid: All the town's 684 people remember him as "the boy who ran his mother into a tree."

Indeed, Carl's mother, Elizabeth, remains a potent presence a decade after her death in a car that the 17-year-old Carl was driving because her husband, William, had gotten drunk at the annual New Year's bash thrown by the Richardsons, who run West Gull and own most of it. She was a beautiful urbanite who, for reasons nobody quite understands, settled in the country with an unsuccessful farmer, taught school and exuded an air of mystery and glamour.

Carl's return, like a big rock tossed into a stagnant pool, sends ripples to the farthest edges of the township. Lizzie is scared and delighted. Chrissy is drawn to her ex-husband, though she has taken up with Fred Verghoers, once Carl's rival in romance and hockey, now a rising businessman who is running for reeve--something like a county supervisor--against the town's leading citizen, Luke Richardson.

Fred's jealousy rekindles. Luke schemes to use Carl as a weapon against Fred. Local women who went out with Carl before he married Chrissy bait their traps for him again. Moira Lapointe, a city girl with a former drug problem who works at the Richardson-owned retirement home where William McKelvey now lives, sees Carl as "a good-looking piece of country ham," and promptly beds him in the Richardson-owned house he's renting.

William, still mourning his wife and resenting Carl for her loss, however accidental, steals a "bomb" of a white Pontiac from a Richardson-owned car lot, visits the farm of his childhood, loses control of the car--his knee, injured in the crash that killed Elizabeth, locks up--and drives into Dead Swede Lake, where a fishing buddy rescues him.

Rocked most profoundly by the ripples, however, is Adam Goldsmith, the bachelor accountant for the Richardson interests. His quiet exterior conceals a wealth of strangeness. As a boy, he spoke in tongues and writhed on the floor at religious meetings in his mother's kitchen. His great romance was an illicit, secret one: with Elizabeth. He deposits anonymous, inspirational messages in people's mailboxes. He dreams of a West Gull transformed by love even as he considers murder. And he takes Carl's problems more seriously than Carl could ever imagine.

Cohen moves back and forth in time; he goes off on what seem to be digressions but prove to be just more parts of his complex plot. He writes of rural Ontario, its weather and history, with an unsentimental affection and a wholeness of vision, so that the slapstick of William's car theft, the first delicate growth of Elizabeth's love for him, Fred's possible abuse of Chrissy and the vicious, pitiful rebellion of Luke Richardson's son, Ned, all are able to coexist.

"Elizabeth and After" isn't a perfect novel--the prose sometimes strains too hard for effect, and there are loose ends and improbabilities--but it's a real novel, shaped by its characters rather than jamming them into a formula; and the characters are like real people: Even after we feel we know them inside out, we're never sure what they're going to do next.

Los Angeles Times Articles