In his debut novel, Cavanagh tells the story of Irving and his daughter, Severn. Helen, Irving’s wife, passed away from cancer a year before, and they’ve been struggling to get through. Severn has become a loner, with only one friend that Irving doesn’t approve of – Avery. When Severn and Avery run off to Toronto one day, Irving and Avery’s mother, Marla, head off to hunt them down and bring them home.
What gets revealed as the story goes on is that Severn has headed to Toronto to find the man both she and Irving believe to be her biological father.
One of the things I really liked about this book was the fact that it alternates between taking place in the present and in the past (when Irving and Helen first met). Cavanagh made the two time periods flow well together, unlike other books I’ve read in this format that feel very jumpy and where it takes a while to get your bearings again. Bad thing about this, though, was that I was tempted to skip every other chapter at one point to see what continued to happen on Irving’s search for Severn.
In my precious few free moments this past week, I have been devouring this book. A good majority of the book took place downtown London. No, not that London – the other London. My London. I’ve never before read a book that takes place in the city I grew up in, the city I still consider my home even though I’m no longer living there, so the fact that After Helen spent a good portion of its time on Richmond Row, in Victoria Park, and even some time travelling the 401 heading towards Toronto, made me instantly fall in love with this book. It made me think of everything good and wonderful about London, and brought me back to window shopping on Richmond Row, going to the festivals in Victoria Park, and sitting out on the patio of the coffee shops in the summer.
By the time the novelty of reading a book where I knew the places it was talking about had worn off, I was at the point where I really cared what happened to the characters. It was easy to empathize with each of the characters in all of their situations, and the way that Helen was continuously revealed throughout the book was enjoyable – at the beginning of the book, you get the feeling that Helen was a saint, but as the story progresses, Irving is more honest with himself and the reader and starts to acknowledge to us that Helen had also hurt him and his daughter quite a bit. There was a lot of character depth in this book, and you can tell Cavanagh put a lot of work into After Helen
Overall, I thought the book was really well written for a first novel. I hope that Cavanagh will be writing more books in the future; if he does, I will certainly be getting my hands on them.
This is my eighth book for The Canadian Book Challenge.