Review of What Remains of Elsie Jane by Chelsea Wakelyn

What Remains of Elsie Jane
By Chelsea Wakelyn
Rare Machines
256 Pages, $25.00

Chelsea Wakelyn’s debut novel, What Remains of Elsie Jane, is a spellbinding portrayal of how grief unravels the human experience, transporting the bereaved into a realm so otherworldly in its never-ending depths of sorrow, only to magically put it back together again. A testimony to the agony of grief and a tribute to the human capacity of resilience, Wakelyn’s novel, which portrays the narrator Elsie’s day-to-day struggles after the unexpected death of her partner Sam, provides a refreshing exploration of pain, one that neither pathologizes nor rationalizes, but just let it scream as loudly as it wishes.

The brilliance of Wakelyn’s narrative lies in how she draws attention to Elsie’s grieving but refrains from making clinical suggestions. This is a challenging feat to have undertaken because Elsie shows concerning behaviour: Loss of personal hygiene, reckless decision-making, uncontrolled crying, and holding unsubstantiated beliefs about reality—all of which could be recognized as someone needing professional help. However, Wakelyn’s clever use of the first-person narration provides a sincere depiction of grief as an experience impenetrable by others: “Nobody can possibly understand the depth and complexity of your pain, the scale of your loss.” This unwavering individuality arising from Elsie’s grief does not ask for readers’ sympathies, rather it demands their trust in a character who has been forced to embrace loss—in multiple forms. No recommendations are made, no solutions are provided, not even in the therapist office where Elsie’s confessions are cut short due to time limitations. Wakelyn’s novel thus presents a living practice of grief that supersedes any theoretical deliberations.

Despite the gut-wrenching losses, Wakelyn’s writing is surprisingly comedic. When emotional exhaustion is mixed with the exasperations of daily responsibilities, including that of motherhood, Elsie’s tone becomes unfiltered, delivering morbidly hilarious lines such as, “[b]ecause the universe likes to take dumps on my face, I also got an email this morning from my uncle.” This unapologetic voice fits superbly with Wakelyn’s focus on magic in the latter half of the novel when Elsie becomes convinced that she must find a wizard who can help her travel back in time to save Sam. There is desperation in Elsie’s appeal to magic, but also charm in its candid expression of vulnerability.

What Remains of Elsie Jane is thus a deeply honest homage to both love and loss, and how the two are often indiscernible from each other. The mesmeric tangling of sorrow and humour makes Wakelyn’s novel appealing to readers who want to witness grief in action but not be weighed down by despair.

—Lillian Liao

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