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Elizabeth and After: A Novel

Elizabeth and After: A Novel

by Matt Cohen
A touching and resonant story of a man who returns to the small town of West Gull, Ontario, to mend his family’s legacy of alcohol and violence, to reconnect with his young daughter, and to reconcile himself with the spirit of his beautiful mother, killed several years earlier in a tragic accident. Elizabeth and After masterfully wraps us up in the lives


A touching and resonant story of a man who returns to the small town of West Gull, Ontario, to mend his family’s legacy of alcohol and violence, to reconnect with his young daughter, and to reconcile himself with the spirit of his beautiful mother, killed several years earlier in a tragic accident. Elizabeth and After masterfully wraps us up in the lives of Carl and his family, and the other 683 odd residents of this snowy Canadian hamlet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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." Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Winner of Canada's prestigious Governor-General's Award, this is an incredibly intricate novel about a small town and its people. West Gull is in Ontario but could be anywhere in the world where small towns survive. Protagonist Carl McKelvey, who is reminiscent of Richard Russo's characters, particularly Sam Hall in The Risk Pool, returns to West Gull for reasons seemingly unknown to him and others in town. In West Gull, Carl had left an ex-wife and a daughter, a dead mother, an old father, and a reputation as a violent drunk. Hoping to rebuild his life, he reestablishes contact with his seven-year-old daughter, Lizzie, but finds that the memory of his mother, Elizabeth, who touched everyone in town to some degree and who died in a car crash when Carl was at the wheel, is a strong impediment. Now, Carl must put that memory and guilt to rest before moving on. Cohen's novel is packed with humor, desperation, and romance.
U.S. News & World Report
Elegantly crafted spare, sinuous prose, Cohen's portrait of tiny West Gull, Ontario (population 684) is by turns funny and foreboding.
Andrea King Collier
When the Canadian writer Matt Cohen died last year, he left behind Elizabeth and After, a quiet yet haunting tale of love and loss...Cohen relates all these stories with energy and grace.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A strong, spare, autumnal tale of loss and redemption, winner of the Governor General's Award, and the final work from Cohen (The Bookseller, 1996, etc.), a talented, hard-working Canadian novelist who died, at age 52, in 1999. Set in the increasingly gentrified precincts of rural Canada, in a town where the long-established family farms are giving way to expensive housing developments, the story follows the struggles of a family displaced from the land and further damaged by tragedy. Carl McKelvey reluctantly returns to the town of West Gull after an absence of three years, torn between his desire to escape from the past and the need to deal with its considerable hold on him. He blames himself for the untimely death of his mother, Elizabeth, in an accident fueled by anger and alcohol. He also carries the weight of a failed marriage. He has come home in an attempt to make peace with his troublesome father, a lifelong farmer now confined against his will to a nursing home, and to reestablish a connection with his disaffected daughter, seven-year-old Lizzie. Because his mother, a schoolteacher, was a beloved figure in West Gull, whose benign presence affected many lives, Carl's return stirs up dormant memories and resentments, and precipitates a series of confrontations. Carl and his father blame each other for Elizabeth's death: Carl had been at the wheel, bringing his mother and his drunken father home from a party, when he had lost control of the car. Carl has had his own long struggle with alcoholism, and with a fierce temper also inherited from his father. His slow, painful battle to reconnect with life, to be a father for Lizzie, and to strike some truce with his own father arealldelineated here in precise, resonant prose, imbued with a muted but powerful sense of longing. Cohen quietly presses the action toward a moving conclusion, all the more persuasive for its refusal to rely on easy victories. An extremely satisfying work, finding new depth in old themes, and offering a fitting memorial to a talented, deeply humane writer.

Product Details

Picador USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st U.S. Edition
Product dimensions:
5.85(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.19(d)

Read an Excerpt

Elizabeth and After

By Matt Cohen


Copyright © 1999 Matt Cohen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08653-2


As William McKelvey lay twisted in his bed, grizzled barrel chest barely moving, each drawn-in breath rattled like a truckful of gravel being poured through a giant tin culvert. There followed a brief moment during which the echo grew as hollow as a horror-movie tomb, then the gushing exhalation began: a long moist flushing out of spongy lungs clogged by decades of tobacco and woodsmoke.

Asleep, as awake, William McKelvey made a large ungainly lump. But in his dream McKelvey was all air and fire, a sheet-wrapped ghost drifting through West Gull, a small farming centre and tourist town that for almost two centuries had been clinging to the shore of Long Gull Lake, an elongated granite-shored dip on the southern edge of the Precambrian Shield. The sky was black and moonless, the street lamps off. But in the residential area where William McKelvey slept, the tended streets with the expensive homes between the highway and the lake, most of the doors had amber-lit brass coach lamps showing the way for horses that would never come, and through the windows of their glassed-in solariums could be seen the glowing numbers of VCRs and digital clocks and sometimes the trembling green and red lights of fax and answering machines.

The main street brought more lights — the white fluorescent glow of the big glass-doored refrigerators in which the convenience store kept its milk and juice, the tricoloured neon pop sign that burned day and night over the counter of the Timberpost Restaurant and the light Luke Richardson kept on at the Richardson Real Estate office. Luke Richardson. There was a man who could turn a dream into a nightmare. These days he liked to come up to McKelvey and stand too close, his lank black hair shining with grease. "Hey, Bill," he would start, his jaw dropping to reveal the dark poison hole of his mouth. "How's my man? Where you been hiding?" William McKelvey, convinced eight years ago by Luke Richardson to sell his house and farm to the West Gull Rest & Retirement Villa in return for the privilege of resting and retiring there until he died or became a vegetable, would turn and walk away.

The dream-ghost of William McKelvey was looking for fresh brownies in the bakeshop when the radio woke him up.

"Five a.m. at TWANG FM," rhymed the all-night DJ, his tinny voice emerging discreetly from the clock radio William McKelvey kept under his pillow.

He rolled onto his back and began to massage his bad knee. It was late June. The sweet smell of clover and fresh-cut hay lay across the township and filtered through McKelvey's screened window, along with the beginning ripples of birdsong and the restless trembling of the poplars that stood in the yard of the R&R, originally the home of Luke Richardson's great-great-grandfather and now the penultimate residence of two dozen officially ambulatory souls whose bodies, like the slowly collapsing barns that dotted the landscape, now gave only the most provisional shelter to anyone trapped inside.

McKelvey pushed away the covers and silently dressed in the clothes he had laid out. Soon he was padding downstairs, shoes in hand.

Once in the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator door and helped himself to a package of sliced salami and a square of cheese, both of which he stuffed into his fishing vest, a beige labyrinth of pockets and zippers sent to him by his son on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. From one of the pockets within a pocket, he withdrew a key he'd confiscated the afternoon before and used it to unbolt the deadlocked kitchen door.

By now there was just enough light to make silhouettes of the surrounding trees and nearby houses. Even in the few minutes it had taken him to dress and get outside, the birdsounds had grown more complicated, new calls and songs crowding into the pre-dawn sky. He crossed the grass to the sidewalk. A few steps took him to the delivery lane that emerged on Main Street. There, standing beside the real-estate office, the same one his dream-ghost had passed, he peered across the street to Richardson's New & Used. Beside the garage, parked where it had been for the last week, was the white Pontiac.

* * *

The white Pontiac! There was a ghost worth catching. He'd first seen it when he was out for an afternoon apple pie and coffee at the Timberpost. Something about its tilt made him think that his own old Pontiac — a gold-orange dinosaur he'd long ago sold for scrap — had somehow wound its way back from wherever it had been, got itself painted, then settled in Luke Richardson's car lot to wait for him.

Unable to believe such a gift, he'd approached it slowly, telling himself that if the upholstery was the same mesh polyester, the steering wheel faded on the left side by sun and sweat, the corner of the glove compartment bent where he'd had to pry it open with a crowbar ...

But this ghost Pontiac had upholstery of gleaming white leather, a white suede-covered steering wheel, a glove compartment that resembled a strongbox. This Pontiac was lower to the ground, equipped with twin stainless-steel exhausts, hood and fenders shaped in expensive aerodynamic curves. This Pontiac was no ghost, it was a bomb — a white bomb — and underneath that hood was most likely some kind of fuel-injected V-8 nuclear power plant that would send the car smoking along on the oversized tires that bulged out from beneath the fenders.

McKelvey wished he'd woken up an hour earlier. He had his old car keys with him, not the exact ones but copies he'd made before selling it. Just in case. Of course this was a different car. But those manufacturers were cheap bastard fools and his key slid unresisted into the lock.

No one was watching. He pretended to be looking through the window as if he, seventy-six-year-old William McKelvey, had won the lottery at five in the morning and decided to spend it on this bomb that had a price of $34,999.99 crayoned in red wax onto its windshield. The key was in the lock and now he tried to turn it. No luck. No matter how carefully he jiggled, it wouldn't work. Then, just because he was a stubborn old ass and he hadn't gotten out of bed for nothing, he tried the passenger door. The lock yielded with a smooth oiled click. McKelvey opened it, leaned across to release the driver's side. He walked around the car and let himself in. Being surrounded by the white bucket seat was like sitting in a cloud of whipped cream. He took the key and carefully, a tiny wiggle at a time, hardly daring to hope, inserted it so-slow-slowly into the ignition. "Please go," he said, twisting it. The engine caught immediately, a deep and powerful purr.

Two seconds later he had adjusted the driver's seat to accommodate his long legs, reversed out of the lot, turned the corner and was cruising down Pine Street, fat tires humming in tune to the engine's low growl. His foot barely touching the accelerator, he floated past the cop shop, then the Brewer's Retail at the edge of town. The light made a narrow red-yellow band along the horizon and the car was skimming towards it; then gravity and impatience grabbed his foot and rammed it to the floor. The big Pontiac rocketed forward, pinning him back like an astronaut in his seat. McKelvey was laughing. Again he stamped the pedal and this time the bomb exploded, shooting him over the hill and into the sun.

After a few miles he turned off the highway and stopped to wipe the price off the windshield. As the sound of the engine drained away, a nearby crow cawed; its sharp wild call tore through the air and McKelvey looked up to see the bird gliding to rest on the top branch of a dead elm. "Good morning, crow," he said. The crow looked down at him, startled, then flapped away cawing into the morning sky. McKelvey began winding his way through the back roads, his window open. The air here was sweeter than town air could ever be, the grass thick and tangled, the maple and oak that lined the fields heavy with their brilliant loads of green, the rising light.

* * *

He rounded the corner that the swamp flooded every spring and suddenly his chest filled up with a terrible homesick feeling he wouldn't have known he could still have. Even before the house, his eyes went to the sign. It was centred in front of the row of pine trees he and Carl had transplanted one day when Carl was just six years old and happy to go anywhere with his father in the big pick-up. That summer Carl was always playing in the truck, jumping in and out of the box, trying to climb into the front seat to get at the radio. Evenings at twilight McKelvey would find his son stretched full length in the truck seat, baseball glove clutched like a teddy bear to his heart, listening mouth open and mesmerized to the country music flooding through the oversized Motorola AM/FM McKelvey had hung beneath the dashboard of his old Ford.

RICHARDSON REAL ESTATE, the sign read. Big black letters against a green background with a telephone number beneath. At the side of the front yard, near the road and where the bugs were always the worst, was a set of swings that hadn't rusted yet.

The house. Like the Pontiac it had turned white: the straight polished gleam of its new aluminum siding taunted him like the echo of a two-handed slap. "Tastefully renovated" was how the ad described it. Reading the description of his old farm had made him so angry he blushed.

Country hobby waterfront jewel. Tastefully renovated century home near tourist town offers rural playground for young family. Safe swimming in Dead Swede Lake, out-buildings that could be converted for offices or horses, drained fields, vintage maple bush.

"Country waterfront jewel," he had read aloud, sitting on the porch of the R&R. "Century home." He remembered hanging from his father's huge hand as they wandered through the house for the first time. The damp musty smell of the wet basement rising through the rotting pine-planked floors he would eventually replace with hardwood. The peeling mildewed wallpaper. The windows with more spiderwebs than glass. Waterfront jewel ... rural playground ... safe swimming in Dead Swede Lake. He'd cut the advertisement out of the newspaper, put it in his fishing vest, then kept pulling it out to see if it was still true — like a love letter or a bottle of rye that knew how to fill itself in the dark. A couple of days later the Pontiac had appeared.

A black chain was draped between the gateposts. He undid it, drove in, put the chain back in place. He cruised slowly down the driveway, approaching the metal-clad box that had once been his house with all the caution due an enemy fortress, continued past the kitchen door and parked behind the chicken coop so the car wouldn't be visible from the road. The sun was fully up now, sending brilliant shards of light from the new aluminum windows, the shiny metal door, the white siding. It was amazing that they could buy a man's life like this, then turn it into a tin box looking like it needed to be kicked in. Century home.

* * *

This was as far as he had planned: to get the car, drive it to the old farm, park where he couldn't be seen.

But now he was at the house itself, at the doorway he had passed through so many tens of thousands of times. Despite everything they'd done to the outside of this tastefully renovated waterfront jewel, he could feel his mouth forming into a stupid grin, his eyes closing as though inside this bizarrely deformed memory-house his youth was waiting to be stepped into again like an old coat miraculously converted into a handsome new garment. He was sweating and clinging to the brass handle of the new door with its matched metal-vinyl self-hung casing. He was wishing he was back in bed at the R&R listening to the news and the birds squabbling in the feeders. If only Elizabeth would suddenly appear.

The thought of Elizabeth steadied him. He straightened up, looked at the white panelled door with its half-ring of half-moon peek-a-boo windows. Like the swings, the siding, the newly shingled roof, the door made him wonder about the people who'd lived there. Of course they had ripped out the old hand pump in front of the house — a man couldn't even get a drink of water without going inside. He turned away from the house and went to the chicken coop. The electric meter was still there. He threw the master switch. The previous owners had used the coop for storing wood and at one end of the small woodpile they'd left a splitting axe. It had a long hickory handle, the varnish still unworn, and a good solid weight that swung like a comforting pendulum as he limped back across the grass towards the new door.

His shoes were soaked through with dew and he had a sudden memory of himself as a boy, a day like this, barefoot in this very grass, grass so wet he could feel the juice squirting between his toes as he ran.

The rotting wooden steps had been replaced by poured concrete. McKelvey positioned himself carefully, stiffened his bad knee, swung back and then torqued his two hundred and forty plus pounds into low gear as he powered the butt end of the axe into the gleaming brass handle. The lock gave way but when the door swung open McKelvey saw not his nostalgic old kitchen but a great sweep of whiteness that looked like an oversized bathroom in search of a piss-pot. White tiles, white counters and stove, white-enamelled sink, white walls and ceiling, even a white ice-making refrigerator.

McKelvey went to the sink and pulled hard on the new tap. It shot out a thick stream of water that ricocheted off the bottom of the sink and into his face. The telephone rang. A loud old-fashioned bell that started his heart racing and for a moment he was sure that if he picked it up he would hear Elizabeth. For the first time in a decade, he could remember her voice: dry, affectionate, yet with a built-in twist that announced — or was it insisted? — that between her and every other living being was a space that could never be crossed. Then he wondered if the telephone meant someone was calling who had reason to expect an answer. Frightened, he grabbed the axe and bolted outside.

By the time he was back in the comforting whipped-cream leather of the driver's seat, had the big motor purring and awaiting his orders, his stomach was going again. But instead of returning to the road, he drove into the heart of his old farm, going between the barns to pick up an old tractor trail that wound between the fences of two hayfields, through the vintage maple bush, down into the swamp between the maples and the lake. The trail was long unused, the hay uncut, and as he eased the car along the overgrown track between the fields, there were moments when the clover and alfalfa obscured his view before swishing beneath the bumper. In the deep shade of the maple bush the grass was shorter but two or three times he had to stop to remove a fallen limb. Each time he stepped out of the car he left the motor running, afraid that any unguarded moment of silence might drown him. Safe swimming. At the edge of the swamp he stopped and threw in the axe. Here the old trail turned soft and boggy. When the wheels started to spin he slowed to a crawl and then, just to see what would happen, he tried accelerating through it. The big tires whined briefly before the car began to settle. He opened the door. The wheels were half sunk into the mud.

McKelvey grabbed the roof and hauled himself to his feet. His knee locked and he had to massage it again before he could limp around the car and assess the situation. Thirty years ago he'd dumped a few loads of sand to keep this stretch of swampy track out of the water. At the time he'd thought about solving the problem for eternity by mixing in some gravel and ditching the sides so the water could escape. But that would have been an extra week's work. Better just to use the road in late November, after the fall rains, when the frost was in the ground and a thin crust of snow lay on top. He would load up his chainsaw and drive back in the old truck with a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. A few hours later he'd have enough wood to spend the rest of the day splitting and stacking.

Now the leaves were thick and green. And even though the sky was clear and the sun high, there was a ripe marshy smell.


Excerpted from Elizabeth and After by Matt Cohen. Copyright © 1999 Matt Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Matt Cohen is the author of 13 novels. His books have been published in 9 languages. He lived in Toronto, Ontario until his death in 1999.

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