Grief is a highly personal process that can manifest itself in many different ways, as you could surmise from my review of Peter Dubé’s The Headless Man. Maybe I should read happier books, you think, and maybe you’re right. However, I’d miss out on some genuinely interesting and moving stories, like Eddy Boudel Tan’s After Elias.
Coen Caraway is at a resort in Mexico waiting for his husband-to-be, Elias, and all the attendees for their destination wedding. Elias, a pilot, is flying in later that day and most of the guests are on their way when Elias’s plane crashes with no survivors. Coen decides to carry on, turning the aborted wedding into a celebration of Elias’s life, but details coming to light after the crash suggest it might not have been an accident.
The wisdom of his decision notwithstanding, Coen is a powerful character. His understandable grief turns to frustration, rage, desperation, and many other emotions, and author Tan balances these all out with finesse, never going over the top with any of them. Between the flashbacks to their life together and the real-time celebration of life—for all its awkwardness—the reader gets an intimate portrait of a relationship whose cracks were beginning to show but were still easily plastered over.
As Coen’s doubts grow, he finds a photo of Elias as a child and decides to take a side-trip to visit Elias’s hometown to see if he can find some answers, moral support provided by his best friend, Vivi, and his brother, Clark, who join him on this odyssey. Clark is another interesting character, tired of the patterns they’d established when they were kids and wanting to engage with Coen on an entirely different level.
In fact, Tan shines in the department of character creation. All the major characters are fully realized and move through the plot confidently. The story never lags, from Coen’s finding out about the crash on TV in a crowded bar to the final revelation provided by Elias’s mother in the concluding scenes. You never know quite where this will go, and I love that. Tan’s prose is uncluttered but not plain. His descriptions of the resort paradise are wonderful, but this novel isn’t about a sense of place—in this world. After Elias is a close examination of not only grief but the disconnectedness of the one left behind and how the survivor restarts in a different direction after such a fatal blow. It provides little in the way of answers—for there are no definitive answers—but paints a detailed and believable portrait of how one man deals with the loss. Highly recommended.
© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler