Elizabeth and After


370 pages
ISBN 0-676-97170-9
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


Following on the heels of the critically acclaimed Last Seen (1996) is
this powerful and richly detailed evocation of life in West Gull, a
farming and tourist centre north of Kingston, Ontario. It begins with a
flashback: the funeral of 51-year-old Elizabeth McKelvey, the mysterious
beauty who settled in West Gull many years ago, having “mistook a
McKelvey for a prince.”

The car accident that kills Elizabeth, leaving her blood “scattered
in long splotched whips like scarlet maple taffy,” has a profound
effect on her son Carl, who returns to West Gull after a three-year
absence, determined to break his pattern of destructive behavior and
thereby redeem himself in the eyes of his ex-wife and daughter; her
husband, William, who at the start of the novel sneaks out of the
retirement home where he unhappily resides, steals a white Pontiac from
the local car dealership, and joyrides it into a lake; and Adam
Goldsmith, an accountant and the town’s appointed “eternal sexless
bachelor,” who shared with Elizabeth a shocking secret and who is
transformed by her death into “a dark blank ghost standing in the
midst of the living.”

The narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing not
only the town’s secrets but also its longstanding grudges and
rivalries. At one point, Carl feels like “the cast-out black sheep in
some old western movie ... who is compelled to return to the place that
will destroy him.” The Western motif is thrillingly expressed when
Carl exacts frontier-style justice on the person who butchered his
daughter’s cat. A more formidable enemy is his ex-wife’s live-in
boyfriend, a man whose solid-citizen veneer conceals a brutal nature.

Permeating the accomplished storytelling is a haunting sense of time
and its corrosive effects. For these characters, young and old alike,
the present is always found wanting when measured against the past. As
she ages, Elizabeth becomes increasingly preoccupied with what-ifs and
might-have-beens. Just as William’s life is destined to shrink as a
consequence of his wife’s untimely death, Elizabeth’s life, with all
its boundless hopes and dreams and possibilities, is reduced by her
marriage to William. Before that marriage occurs, William takes her on a
walking tour of the West Gull Cemetery. During the visit, she has “a
weird presentiment that she [is] being introduced to the place where she
[will] be buried.” Sadly, among all her expectations, it is one of the
few that will ever be realized.


Cohen, Matt., “Elizabeth and After,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/524.