Elizabeth and After

Matt Cohen, Author
Matt Cohen, Author Picador USA $25 (384p) ISBN 978-0-312-26151-1
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Winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for Fiction, Cohen's (Last Seen) muted smalltown drama is set in West Gull, Ontario, a farming center and tourist destination on the shores of Long Gull Lake. The eponymous Elizabeth McKelvey, ""the woman considered to be the most beautiful, the most mysterious, the most out-of-place in the whole township,"" is already dead at 51 as the novel opens, but her presence is still felt. She is mourned by her retired, semi-alcoholic husband, William, and her ne'er-do-well son, Carl, who has just returned to town. Adam Goldsmith, accountant to West Gull's unscrupulous leading citizen, Luke Richardson, and ""possibly the most colourless man ever to live in West Gull,"" silently suffers her loss, too; he was Elizabeth's secret lover. As Richardson's political campaign kicks into high gear, Carl tries to find a job in his hometown's depressed economy and reconcile with his ex-wife, Chrissy, and seven-year-old daughter. Carl is tormented with guilt over his mother's death; he was driving his parents home after a party and crashed into a tree. He is also fearful of inheriting the McKelvey family shiftlessness--needlessly, it turns out, since Carl is actually Goldsmith's son, although the younger man is unaware of that. It is Chrissy's new boyfriend, Fred Verghoers, Carl's old enemy and Richardson's opponent on the campaign trail, who finally forces Carl to confront his past. The narrative pauses to flash back to Elizabeth's life; perhaps she scrutinized it obsessively (""Was it that she had been too frightened to ruin her life and wished she had?""), but she never suspected the strength of her legacy to the people who would survive her. Though Cohen wraps up his plot lines a little too neatly in another car crash, his empathy and compassion, and his delicate depiction of loss and longing in a closely knit community, haunt his narrative. (Aug.) FYI: After Cohen's untimely death in 1999, Margaret Atwood wrote ""An Appreciation"" for the Toronto Globe and Mail: ""Matt was a consummate writer.... He was very smart, very funny and very intellectually tough.""
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