After You've Gone

FreeFall, Spring/Summer 2017

Lori Hahnel's book, After You've Gone, is about the lives of two women: Lita, a jazz grandmother who played guitar in 1930s Regina and her punk-rock granddaughter, Elsa, who picks up the axe as part of Queen City's fledgling punk scene nearly 50 years later. Lita's and Elsa's narratives are both told in first person, weaving back-and-forth throughout the novel from past to present. The novel opens in 2007 with Elsa and her ex-husband Mark attending their son's convocation from Seattle University. The narrator's reference to a song written and performed by Sandy Denny (1947-1978), lead singer for the folk rock band Fairport Convention, sets the stage for a series of flashbacks that move between Elsa and her grandmother: maybe Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention said it best: "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" (13).

Lita acquires her trademark National guitar playing her first game of poker with a group of unemployed men who've joined an On-to-Ottawa protest march (37). After joining a jazz combo, The Syncopation Five, Lita falls in love with the lead singer, Bill. Marriage follows, and along with it, heartbreak, pain, and death. The birth scene of Sarah, Lita and Bill's daughter, moved me—she was born after her father's death.

Lita then weds Jacob, manager of the Hotel Saskatchewan (the jazz combo performed at this venue). I was happy for Lita when her long absence from the National had been reversed:

Soon again I was playing on a regular basis. I didn't do it because of any anticipation of performing, any intention of seeking out other musicians. As far as I could see at that point, my life as a musician was over. Yet my creativity soared, possibly because of the freedom of not being in a working band, the absence of pressure. I wrote more of my own material than ever before, started to play other things as well as my own inventions, like some traditional Gypsy tunes I'd picked up records of (173).

Jacob capitalized on Saskatchewan's potash boom (late 1950s) when he bought the old Dinsmore Hotel in Queen City and it became The Hotel Regina. Jacob's hotel business became his sole focus after his step-daughter's marriage.

Meanwhile, Elsa becomes the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the Regina punk band Speed Queen. She and her punk rock husband, Mark, eventually move to Seattle in 1983 with their new baby in search of a more vibrant music scene. Elsa's statement about Seattle's musical prominence enlightened me:

What most people don't know is there's been a strong music scene in the Northwest, Seattle in particular, for a very long time (94).

Since there were many more bars, clubs, and community halls in Seattle than there were in Regina, Elsa's band Speed Queen and Mark's new band The Green Lanterns had no problem getting exposure. Knowing that her husband is stretched thin with commitments to his job as a dispatcher in his brother-in-law's courier company; his band; and his family, Elsa is hesitant about Mark's idea of starting a record label. When he says to her, "I promise you Speed Queen will get preferential treatment when it comes to considering a demo" (100), Elsa agrees, "Oh, thanks!" (100). Together, they eventually end up establishing a record label, Curse Records. Mark's involvement in Curse becomes minimal when he buys out his brother-in-law's courier firm in the mid-90s. As Bill, Elsa and Mark's child, gets more independent, Elsa has more time to devote to Curse, which leads to her running the business on her own. I empathize with Elsa's desire to get back into a band after a long absence and her dissatisfaction with her time-consuming job.

This novel is brilliant for the insight captured in the small moments, which is further reinforced through the narrative juxtaposition of Lita and Elsa's lives. It captivated me from start to finish. As a result, I was inspired to reread it immediately. Many thanks to Hahnel for the wonderful opportunity.

— Jamal Ali, FreeFall

Alberta Views, March 2015

Lori Hahnel’s third book, After You've Gone, follows the lives of two women. Lita, a talented guitarist of Romany ancestry, comes into her own as a musician in 1930s Regina. Her granddaughter, Elsa, also a guitarist, moves to Seattle in the 1980s in search of a vibrant music scene, and eventually ends up establishing a record label with her husband.

At the core of After You've Gone are explorations of inheritance and musicians’ lifestyles. This novel does romanticize the life of a musician to a certain extent; Lita acquires her trademark National guitar playing her first game of poker with a group of unemployed men who've joined an On-to-Ottawa protest march. This origin story gives the National a mythic quality, setting up a common trope in narratives featuring musicians: their instruments are imbued with a kind of magic.

Hahnel, however, isn't afraid to delve into the less glamorous aspects as well. Both Lita and Elsa wrestle with how to balance music with family responsibilities. Elsa sits in her office struggling with the day-to-day headaches of running Curse Records. Lita’s relationship to music becomes strained and, for a time, ceases altogether. Bills have to be paid, family and friends require time, and muses can be fickle.

Lita’s and Elsa’s narratives are both told in the first person, and Hahnel provides each character with her own distinctive voice. Lita’s is the stronger, since she recounts the bulk of the story, and there is a definite 1930s flavour in her words. A weakness of historical fiction is the tendency to overload the text with details, which fetters the narrative. But Hahnel’s novel works these markers in seamlessly, giving us a vivid depiction of Regina during this historical period.

Elsa’s voice evokes the 1980s and gives a strong portrait of her character. At the same time, its tone and cadence echo Litas, which is clearly intentional on Hahnel’s part. The women share characteristics beyond their love of music: They are both fiercely independent and driven in their desire to follow less conventional paths. This is where the aspect of inheritance plays into the narrative. Elsa has not only inherited Lita’s musical talent but also some of the strengths and flaws of her character.

Elsa's voice acts as a counterpoint to Lita’s. The grandmother and granddaughter lead lives braided together, but at the same time are still distinct, both in terms of their circumstances and personalities. This is what makes After You’ve Gone so engaging. I felt connected to these women, as though I'd shared intimate conversations with them both, and at the end of the book I was sad to leave them behind.
—Emily Ursuliak is a Calgary fiction writer and poet.