After Helen by Paul Cavanagh

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After Helen by Paul Cavanagh

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A study of grief as After Helen's central character goes on a road trip to find his errant daughter. The death of a wife and mother brings buried secrets out into the open. Well-observed, finely written with moments of wit to punctuate the heaviness of its theme. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Not That London
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0993809309

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Irving is lost in a morass of grief after the death of his vivacious, vivid wife Helen. Helen's larger-than-life personality had swamped Irving, a mild-mannered history teacher, from the first time he saw her in her father's bookshop. And now she's gone, life seems beige and bleak. The only thing penetrating the fog of bereavement is Irving's teenaged daughter, Severn. Severn is angry: angry at Helen for dying; angry at Irving for surviving. And no matter how he tries, Irving can't seem to help her.

When Severn runs off to Toronto with an unsuitable boyfriend, Irving sets off on a road trip to find her, accompanied by Marla, the boyfriend's mother. Along the way, Irving examines the history of his relationship with Helen, exhuming the secrets and lies that feed into his troubled relationship with his daughter...

I thought After Helen was a fabulous novel. It's beautifully written, with care and attention to detail. I found it utterly absorbing. It doesn't take long to work out that Helen wasn't quite the incomparable woman that Irving first introduces her as. Nor was their marriage as perfect as he'd like to remember it. Nor was Severn's sudden absconding quite the bolt out of the blue that Irving suggests to Marla. Severn left shortly after being accused of stealing a very particular book. And Irving knows very well what that means, even if he's not ready to admit it.

It's a story of the stages of grief. Of complicated family relationships. Of the damage secrets can cause long after you think they were buried. And, in the end, it's a story of moving on. Sometimes, it's rather bleak, as Irving is forced to confront his and Helen's past despite his reluctance, but there are little moments of wit and humour to keep you from sinking into misery too deeply. Cavanagh leads you into impatience with both the dead, faithless Helen and the self-effacing, doormat Irving, but in the end, it's not only his characters who must come to terms with the imperfections of life, it's you, the reader, too. Clever author, this.

Everything is beautifully fleshed-out, from the supporting cast of characters, through the Canadian landscape, to the parallels with a doomed Victorian expedition to find the Northwest Passage. And the detail is superlative. I can see why Cavanagh won a Lit Idol competition, because it's difficult to criticise anything in this story: prose, structure, plot development, consistent characterisation, background, continuity of theme. This is a well-written novel.

After Helen comes recommended by us. It's one for readers who enjoy good prose and thoughtful writing, and themes of family breakdown and resolution.

If you like After Helen you will love Paul's next book: Weekend Pass.

Family relationships - and problems in marriages - also feature in This Perfect World by Suzanne Bugler. The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness also looks at a man who has married a woman who could never "belong" to him and adds Japanese folklore into the mix.

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Buy After Helen by Paul Cavanagh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy After Helen by Paul Cavanagh at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy After Helen by Paul Cavanagh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy After Helen by Paul Cavanagh at


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