To convey the flavor of a Howard Norman novel, it often suffices to quote the first sentence. That's true of the East Calais writer's eighth, the quietly searing Next Life Might Be Kinder, which opens with this assertion: "After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me."
The speaker is Sam Lattimore, a 36-year-old novelist living on Canada's desolate Atlantic coast in 1973. The previous year, he wed and lost the love of his life.
The novel is no murder mystery; the cause of Elizabeth's death is as mundane as it is hideous and tragic. (She resisted Padgett's repeated sexual overtures. He didn't take it well.) Instead, Next Life is a bit of an afterlife mystery. For the past 13 months, Sam has seen Elizabeth each night as he walks on the beach. He has watched her lay out a row of books. (She was mid-dissertation when she died.) He has conversed with her. And, for the sake of prolonging this contact, he is quite willing to "refine the capacity to suspend disbelief."
To Dr. Nissensen, the therapist Sam sees weekly in Halifax, these nightly encounters sound like products of "impressively creative ... denial." For his part, Sam speculates that Elizabeth is in bardo, the liminal state between life and death described in Tibetan sacred texts. To the doctor's gentle suggestion that his mind might be seeking closure through his visions of Elizabeth, he has a not-so-gentle rebuttal:
Closure is cowardice ... Look, if I ever said, "Oh, I've found closure with Elizabeth," please push me in front of a taxi on Water Street — I'd be dead to feeling anyway. You have my permission ahead of time. Shoot me in the head.
Unfortunately for Sam, he isn't the only one who wants to keep Elizabeth Church alive. Strapped for cash, he has sold the rights to his story to a pompous Scandinavian auteur by the name of Peter Istvakson, who's currently shooting a movie based on the murder in the Halifax locales where the events occurred.
Much of the novel's minimal action consists of Sam's efforts to evade Istvakson and his assistant, who are eager to probe his memories for insight. (The film folk pop up to disrupt his solitude with absurdist regularity, like the faceless officials in a Kafka novel.) These chapters alternate with dialogue-driven accounts of Sam's therapy sessions and recollections of the too-brief time he and Elizabeth spent together.
It's a deceptively simple novel, told in short chapters with an almost snappish title. Next Life Might Be Kinder is an inscription Sam and Elizabeth found scrawled on a series of photographic landscapes (see sidebar), evoking humanity's hopes for the Great Beyond with cynical succinctness. The whole novel is a bit like that inscription: easy to read and hard to forget.
Readers of Norman's 2013 memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place will immediately recognize many of Next Life's motifs. Like Norman in his personal account, Sam describes growing up essentially fatherless. Sam mentions his "debilitating confusion" on the first page, while Norman opens his memoir by evoking his "confused soul." Both find solace in observing birds on the beach. Finally, the memoir includes Norman's account of losing a strong-minded lover to a sudden accident and conducting nightly "séances" in her apartment in an effort to keep her present.
These echoes don't make Next Life feel like a rehashing of the autobiographical material — just the opposite. The novel draws us deep into an experience of loss — or refusal of loss — that the author merely sketched, with tantalizing delicacy, in his memoir.
Just as Sam dares Dr. Nissensen to take his visions seriously, so Norman dares us to dismiss his narrator as one who speaks from deranged grief. What happens if we take Sam at his word? Why do we find it so hard to believe that Elizabeth appears to him? Why are we, as readers, so wedded to the therapeutic narrative of "closure"? Is it because our minds won't accept the possibility of a mourning as long as life?
To entice us to contemplate that possibility, Norman must do two things. He must make us love Elizabeth, not as an idealized, perfect mate but as a vital, continuing presence; and he must find ways to temper Sam's pain. The novelist accomplishes the former with wonderfully lively flashbacks and the latter with a constant undercurrent of dry humor. Sam has a peculiarly Canadian way of making quietly devastating observations, as when he calls the pontificating Istvakson a "wonder-of-me type." He sums up the director's relationship with his cinematographer thus: "Istvakson and Akutagawa had a grudging respect for, yet basically hated, each other."
That description also applies pretty well to the relationship between Sam and his shrink. Therapy sessions can be a pain in fiction: They're static, and many authors use them as a shortcut to the heavy-handed articulation of big themes. The analysis chapters of Next Life, by contrast, are short-and-sweet sparring matches between two parties whose views, it's clear early on, will never dovetail. They give the solitary protagonist a chance to process his experiences aloud, but we can trust Norman not to lead Sam to one of those facile fictional epiphanies where a crying fit solves everything.
Healing in this author's work is a far slower and more subterranean affair. It's what happens as Sam names the birds on the beach, for instance, or meditates on other people's stories of haunting, displacement and loss. The one story he refuses to tolerate is Istvakson's fictionalization of his own, the version the director insists "will tell what really happened, only better."
Is Sam himself, by imagining Elizabeth on the beach, giving their story a "better" ending in defiance of reality? Has he, like Norman, begun turning his experience into fiction? Or is he not imagining but seeing? Norman's fascinating novel leaves us to ponder those questions. Meanwhile, we may find ourselves questioning our own assumptions about the end point of grief. One of Sam's friends puts it best: "As for Elizabeth — for my money, as long as seeing her lasts, you're one of the lucky ones."
I first met Elizabeth two years ago almost to the day, on August 30, 1971, at about eight-thirty in the evening, at the small Hartison Gallery on Duke Street in Halifax. [...]
Anyway, the gallery was crowded, and after moving slowly along the walls from photograph to photograph, I found myself standing next to Elizabeth (of course I didn't know her name yet) in front of a diptych called Mabou Window, which consisted of two identical views of an expanse of snowy boulders and flat rock outcroppings that led down to the sea. A section of broken wooden fence was in each foreground. The snow's glare nearly made me wince, yet there was a strangely animate quality to the light, as if I were seeing wind that contained snow moving toward the water. To me, Mabou Window was epigrammatic, if a landscape study can be epigrammatic; it held a lot of muted, even spectral emotion, a kind of photographic pencil sketch of a stretch of the Cape Breton coast coming into focus out of the fog. As I stood there, a touch lost in thought, lightly jostled by other people but hardly minding, I heard Elizabeth read the words Robert Frank had scrawled across the bottom: Next Life Might Be Kinder. I didn't look at her right away.
Then Elizabeth turned to me and said, "You probably noticed that he's written the same thing on every one of these twenty photographs. They're unsettling, don't you think — those words? We're going to have to think about them for a while."