by Robert WeibezahlMarch, 2009
Story of grief and new beginnings
Life’s sadness hangs like a morning fog over Jeffrey Lent’s new novel, After You’ve Gone, provoking a certain melancholy to be sure, yet also reminding us that low-lying clouds will clear, at least for a time, and we best get on with our days until they invariably roll in once more. Lent, perhaps best known for his first novel, In the Fall, writes elegant, gorgeous prose that penetrates not only the minds, but also the hearts of his characters. His narrative style, unrushed and elliptical, allows his story to unfold with a graceful inevitability that rarely takes the reader by surprise, yet often manages to catch us off guard with its pitch-perfect details.
Set largely in the early 1920s, with flashbacks to earlier times, After You’ve Gone is the story of Henry Dorn, a professor of English in his mid-50s who suffers a double tragedy. One afternoon in May 1921, his beloved wife, Olivia, and his son, Robbie, are killed when their roadster is hit by a train. Robbie, who returned from the Great War a shattered and physically debilitated young man, was at the wheel, and after the fatal accident, the resentment that Henry has borne toward his son for his lack of direction and addiction to morphine complicates his grief. Henry carries with him an unexpressed guilt over the way he may have misunderstood and mistreated his son.
A methodical man, Henry wraps up the loose ends of his life, announces his retirement and, one year after burying his wife and son, embarks on a trip to Amsterdam, the city of his ancestry. Aboard ship, he meets a fascinating American woman, Lydia Pearce, an independent-minded heiress of 40, who has lived alone in Europe since her teens. Sexually liberated and artistically daring, Lydia is on the surface nothing like Olivia—or any woman he has known in his life—yet Henry is ineluctably drawn to her. A romance that begins on the ship continues once they have arrived in the Netherlands, developing into a marriage of true minds. The free-spirited Lydia introduces the highly conventional Henry to a new world filled with illicit pleasures such as jazz and absinthe, and he embraces them with gusto. But when Henry professes his unconditional love, Lydia flees to Paris to sort out her feelings for him.
In Lydia’s absence, Henry lives a solitary life in Amsterdam, filling his time with a new pursuit: learning to play the cello. Under the tutelage of a Russian political exile, he slowly tackles the mysteries of the instrument (the passages where Lent describes Henry’s immersion into the music are exquisite, deftly capturing emotions that are very difficult to convey in words). This period of voluntary seclusion affords Henry much time for contemplation, and his memories take him back as far as his childhood in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, where his character was formed under the tutelage of an indomitable mother and benevolent uncle. Later, after Brown and Yale, he lands a teaching position at Elmira College in upstate New York, and falls in love with and marries Olivia. Their life with their three children is mostly idyllic, threatened only by Robbie’s dual brushes with death—first from whooping cough as a child, and then from mustard gas during the war.
As Henry takes the full measure of his life, he sorts through old family affections and resentments, coming to realize the role that those who have loved him, notably Olivia, and now Lydia, have played in shaping his sensibilities as a man. As grief slowly and unexpectedly gives way to the possibilities of happiness once again, Henry sees in Lydia a second, perhaps final, chance at life.
Jeffrey Lent’s greatest talent as a writer may be his evocation of time and place, and here those elements shift often—from maritime Canada to rural New York to cosmopolitan Amsterdam, from a 19th-century childhood to the turn of the century to the Jazz Age—as Henry Dorn’s life unfolds in out-of-sequence vignettes. An arresting narrative technique, it lends After You’ve Gone an emotional power that might have eluded the book had he opted for a more straightforward approach. It is a pleasure to surrender to the beauty of the storytelling, to succumb to the force of Lent’s elegiac prose and the lingering effects of this haunting novel.