What Remains of Elsie Jane by Chelsea Wakelyn

Grief is a profoundly destabilizing experience in the best of circumstances: the person who dies was old and had a good long life, it was peaceful, and everyone had a chance to say good-bye. But when it’s sudden and unexpected? When there are loose ends and young children involved? When you find out because your husband didn’t go to work that morning, after you left, and that whole day, he was lying dead in the spare room bed? That’s the situation Elsie finds herself in: her husband Sam dies in his sleep, while he was sleeping in the spare room, and she had left for work without kissing him good-bye for the day – and worst of all, she doesn’t find out till she calls his office. Elsie is shattered. They were supposed to spend the rest of their lives together. They have young children. And Sam…is gone.

What Remains of Elsie Jane is a novel following Elsie’s grief journey in the year and a bit since he died. The timeline is uncertain, and Elsie is all over the place: reading Sam’s emails from the early days of their relationship, sleeping with a distant friend named Saul, with whom she becomes obsessed; and neglecting her hygiene, her life, and being awake during the day. Elsie’s grief is deep and heartbreaking, and so is her unravelling of the good and bad of her relationship with Sam, and the brokenness of her blended family and the stigma of Sam’s death by drug poisoning.

What Remains of Elsie Jane is tender and funny and sad, but it’s also deeply realistic, even as Elsie seems to go off the rails.”

Wakelyn does not give us an easy ride with this novel. You’re dropped into Elsie’s shattered recollections, and dragged along as Elsie wanders through her life in that period, missing days, staying up all night, going back and forth in time, in her thoughts, with no clues as to what’s of now and what’s of earlier in her grief. This is brilliantly written, so firmly placing you inside Elsie’s emotions and anguish. I’ve never read a book which so completely captures the way time bends when you’re in the middle of a completely traumatic event, like a sudden death. What Remains of Elsie Jane is tender and funny and sad, but it’s also deeply realistic, even as Elsie seems to go off the rails.

Curiously, Wakelyn has set this novel in the mid-2010s. A contemporary time which hasn’t yet met the grief of the pandemic, which after some thought, I found quite clever. There’s nothing to overshadow Elsie’s pain, but as readers here in 2023, we’ve all gone through a rather intense course in grief over the last few years, and I think will make for a richer reading, and a deeper understanding from those of us who haven’t experienced quite the same loss as Elsie, but do have familiarity with her reactions and the way time passes differently. Elsie is a mess, but an endearing, stricken, very human mess.

Chelsea Wakelyn is a writer, musician, and mother to two lovely, eccentric humans. She lives on Vancouver Island.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Rare Machines (Jan. 31 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 264 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1459750845
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1459750845

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Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.