Elizabeth and After

Cohen, Matt

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Oct-16-2000
  • Last revised: Aug-17-2006


Carl McKelvey returns to his home town in eastern Ontario, looking for work, anxious to see his daughter, and not daring to hope that his broken marriage with Chrissy can be rebuilt. She is living with Fred, who has political aspirations. He finds his widowed father, William, living in a senior’s home, disoriented and angry. The local politician/used-car salesman gives Carl work renovating a house and renting videos, but only the reclusive Adam seems to take an interest in his well-being.

Through a series of flashbacks told from shifting perspectives, the people of this small community are gradually connected to each other through their relationships with Carl’s sophisticated mother, Elizabeth. She was killed a decade ago on New Year’s Eve, when her car crashed into an oak tree, her drunken son at the wheel. Guilt, remorse, and shame plague Carl, but he little realizes that the same feelings combined with regret are the constant companions of Adam who was once Elizabeth’s improbable lover and Carl’s biological father.

Adam sifts through a series of secret, wild plans intended to "save" Carl. Finally, he drives himself and Fred into the same tree that killed Elizabeth, leaving his estate and a letter for Carl. In the end, Carl seems to have reclaimed his daughter and reestablished his life, but his future with Chrissy is ambiguous.


A beautifully written tale of family, love, loss, and guilt told with sensitivity and humor. As he regains control over his life, Carl discovers in himself both a capacity for cruelty and a need to curb it. The traits that he shares with William, he presumably has absorbed by neglectful "nurture"; those he shares with Adam must derive from biology. In this instance, and for a reason unclear to this reviewer, the former traits seem to be dark; the latter, mostly good.

Cars and trucks make frequent appearances to provide an unusual leitmotiv: they are literally the gleaming "vehicle" of Elizabeth’s death, but perhaps they also symbolize desperate male identity. The hilarious opening vignette recounts William’s escape from the seniors’ home and his hijacking of a coveted white Pontiac, which he unceremoniously drives into a swamp. Used as an excerpt, the vignette could invite questions about the indignity of aging and loss.


This novel won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.



Place Published


Page Count