Tuesday, July 21, 2009

After You've Gone by Jeffrey Lent

This short “literary” novel (272 pages) made me think of a musical étude, a piece designed to test the artist’s skill. As I’m not musical, I can only suppose that the comparison was suggested by the cello in the novel, which has, I’m sure, symbolic value; if you read the novel, pay attention to the way the cello is used in the text.

The plot of After You've Gone is fairly straightforward: Henry Dorn, a man who has achieved a modest amount of success in life (rising from a poor Novia Scotia background to become a college professor) suffers the loss of his wife and son in a tragic accident. Given that he had pretty much turned his back on his northern origins, it’s not really surprising that his reaction is flight: he escapes to Amsterdam, and on the way begins a love affair with a young woman who also has some aversion to permanence. As is pretty much obligatory in the case of literary novels, (chronological narration being a big no-no) the narrative meanders around Dorn’s past and present towards its conclusion, which I found slightly unpredictable yet rather disappointing (if you read my reviews regularly, you’ll find I’m rarely satisfied with endings.)

The main theme that emerged from the novel, for me, was one of loss, and how even if we try to escape our past, we gradually build up new ties that become just as binding as the previous ones. Even a new pastime, such as Dorn’s quest to learn an instrument, has implications of involvement and engagement with a new world.

Lent’s prose is very fine; he is not fond of commas, so the words come out in bursts and this builds up a feeling of sensuality in the text, an impression that’s heightened by his descriptions of food and touch. He is less sure-footed when it comes to dialog, though. Although the novel is set in the 1920s, it struck me that I didn’t really feel the sense of being in the past. Although some of the plot elements depend, I think, upon them not happening in the present day, the overall feeling of the novel was contemporary and that, for me, was a jarring factor. There are a couple of scenes that just didn’t work for me, too: a bizarre episode in an Amsterdam jazz café, and the culminating scene of the father/son relationship. I would have cut the first and reworked the second.

I’m left with the impression of a well-written book by an author who hasn’t quite hit his stride. I’ve not read any of Lent’s other books, though, so maybe he just wasn’t 100% comfortable in this story. It’s still worth a look if you like shortish literary pieces.


Diane said...

I read an earlier book by Lent A Peculiar Grace, which I enjoyed. Thanks for the review.

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for the review. I picked this book up and then put it down again in the bookstore the other day, but I think I'll go back for it. I recently read "In the Fall" which was his debut novel and liked it. I can relate to your description of his style of writing--the punctuation gives an urgency to the langugage that might not be there if not for that quirk.

I think he does loss and intense longing quite well, so I'll take my chances on After You've Gone.