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After Helen

By Paul Cavanagh

HarperCollins, 292 pages, $22.95

The trouble with eating one's words, I've discovered, is that it never gets any tastier.

Take the Lit Idol competition, for example. To say that I was skeptical about the prospect of the competition -- to find the worthiest previously unpublished novel in the mother of all slush piles, and bestow upon its author representation by the notable Curtis Brown literary agency, à la American Idol -- would perhaps be something of an understatement.

On hearing of the inaugural contest, held in conjunction with the 2004 London Book Fair, I may have said something along the lines of, "Look out, the seals of the Apocalypse are cracking open!" Or maybe, "What's next, literary Candid Camera?" Or, more likely, "I shudder to think of what sort of fiction they're going to find on par with the execrable 'talents' of Clay Aitken and Kelly Clarkson."

Here's the thing: I was wrong. I take it all back. Well, except that bit about Aitken and Clarkson.

After Helen, the first novel from London, Ont., writer Paul Cavanagh, is a stellar debut, the sort of book that deserves to find both attention and readers. If it takes a derivative contest to bring it to publication, so be it.

The novel (which won the Lit Idol prize under its original title, Northwest Passage) begins one year after the death of Helen Donnelly from ovarian cancer. Not surprisingly, her death has shaken the delicate balance of her family. Her husband, Irving, has poured himself into his work as a high school history teacher, blithely ensconced in his denial, while their teenage daughter, Severn, has grown remote, surly and dispirited.

When Severn disappears after being caught while attempting to shoplift a book, Irving must follow a series of subtle and disturbing clues to find his daughter, who, it quickly emerges, does not want to be found. In the process, he must also confront secrets from the past and reconcile himself with the truth of his wife's life, which he gradually discovers.

Cavanagh demonstrates a confidence with and command of structure and characterization that are rare in first novels. After Helen unfolds in two distinct narrative strands, told in alternating chapters. The contemporary strand follows Irving in his pursuit of Severn and her boyfriend Avery. The second strand chronicles Irving's relationship with Helen, from the mild teacher's meeting with the fiery, beautiful redhead, through the vagaries of their courtship, their early marriage and, eventually, her collapse and death. Each narrative is separately and equally compelling, and serves to draw the reader inexorably through the novel. It's a delicate balancing act.

The structure also allows Cavanagh to play with emotional and thematic counterpoint throughout. Thus, the contemporary strand begins during a period of dissolution, juxtaposed against Irving's initial meeting with, and clumsy wooing of, Helen. Similarly, the novel ends with both a sense of resolution and the crippling heart punch of Helen's death. It's a daring construction, well executed.

Cavanagh's skills extend also to the minutiae of character. Irving and Severn emerge as fully realized, complex characters, each seeming to act independently of any authorial intervention within the world Cavanagh has created. Motivations are clear without being obvious, convincing without being pedantic. Helen herself is a powerhouse of a character, as convincing a literary figure as one is likely to encounter. Secondary characters, including Will, who works in Helen's father's bookstore, and Jack Livingston, a popular author whose latest novel may include secrets of Helen and Irving's past, are almost as thoroughly drawn, each with his or her own back stories and secrets, which only come into focus over the course of the book.

Any novel that deals with subjects such as the death of a wife and mother, the relationship between a father and daughter and the secrets of the past is ripe for cliché and sentimentality. Despite what must have been significant temptation, Cavanagh navigates this minefield of the maudlin with incisive observational skill and a plain-spoken, moderate tone. The result is an emotional depth that is often shocking in its intensity, fidelity and resonance.

I'm not the first one to say it, but here it is: After Helen is a winner.

Robert J. Wiersema is a Victoria writer and bookseller. His first novel, Before I Wake, will be published this fall.