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Fiction Biographical

What Remains of Elsie Jane

by (author) Chelsea Wakelyn

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2023
Biographical, Contemporary Women, Family Life
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2023
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jan 2023
    List Price

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“A poignant, laugh-out-loud funny, weird, and heartbreaking window into being bereft and being in love… a striking reminder that there can be beauty in devastation.” — EMILY AUSTIN, author of Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
A heartbreaking and darkly funny portrait of a woman unravelling in the wake of tragedy.
Sam is dead, which means that Elsie Jane has just lost the brilliant, sensitive man she planned to grow old with. The early days of grief are a fog of work and single parenting. Too restless to sleep, Elsie pores over Sam’s old love letters, paces her house, and bickers with the ghosts of Sam and her dead parents night after night. As the year unfolds, she develops an obsession with a local murder mystery, attends a series of disastrous internet dates in search of a “replacement soulmate,” and solicits a space-time wizard via Craigslist, convinced he will help her forge a path through the cosmos back to Sam.
Examining the ceaseless labour of motherhood, the stigma of death by drug poisoning, and the allure of magical thinking in the wake of tragedy, What Remains of Elsie Jane is a heart-splitting reminder that grief is born from the depths of love.

About the author

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


Chelsea Wakelyn's profile page


  • Short-listed, Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
  • Short-listed, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award (Fiction Category)

Excerpt: What Remains of Elsie Jane (by (author) Chelsea Wakelyn)

At the funeral home, they give me water with lemon slices. It tastes like poison because everything tastes like poison now. They speak to me very softly, like I am a child about to go down for a nap, and they listen with their heads slightly tilted to demonstrate empathy. Ushered into a parlour with gilded floral wallpaper, I sit at a long, gleaming table of dark oak. It’s a difficult time to make decisions, they tell me, and I think, Thank God, they understand. But then they give me a stack of papers to sign, which are full of decisions. Then come the catalogues of flowers and food menus to look at, also full of decisions. Sam’s family and I look at these decision things as if they’re written in hieroglyphics.
Another catalogue: pieces of jewellery that can be forged from ashes of the body. Unfortunately, I can’t view the body right now, as it’s being embalmed in the basement. But I don’t want to see it, anyway, do I? If I see the body, that means the body is real.
“I don’t want to see the body,” I tell them.
“Well, you might change your mind,” they say. “Many people find it a great comfort to see their loved ones at rest.”
“Our mortician is excellent,” they say. “Samuel will look just like he’s sleeping.”
Then they tell me to keep in mind that he’ll be taken off-site for cremation by noon, so unfortunately there are some time constraints if I do decide to participate in the viewing.
“It’s not him, though,” I whisper.
No, darling, of course it’s not me.
If Sam had known he was going to die at age forty-three, I bet he wouldn’t have been upset about the white hairs sprouting from his chest and ears and back.
“Fuck, I hate getting old,” he said one night as we drove the kids home from the pool.
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know — just seeing my reflection in the change room. Don’t you notice how much whiter my chest hair is, all of a sudden? It happened overnight.”
“Growing older is a privilege.”
“That’s such a platitude. Growing old is entropy, and entropy is depressing.”
“I love your white chest hairs. They make you look like a silverback gorilla. I’m going to lick every single one of them.”
When we got home, he went into the bathroom and began plucking his back hairs with tweezers, inspecting his ears and trimming the sweet tufts of fur creeping out of them. I stood behind him and watched us both in the mirror. I made a duck face, then a monkey face. He swatted me away, so I kissed his shoulder blades.
“I love you,” I said. “When I’m an old bird full of arthritis, will you pluck out all my white pubic hairs for me?”
“Of course I will. With my dentures, baby.”
I do end up viewing the body. I’m the last to see it, and when I do, a howl rises up from the heart of the Earth, shoots up my legs into my guts and chest and up my throat, pours out of me in a flood of hot snakes.
The snakes come for a long time. Against the wall, then all over the floor. Every time I try to stop them, I catch a glimpse of Sam’s face, and the room spins and the Earth sends up a fresh tsunami of pain.
At some point, my sister helps me up. I limp toward the body. He’s so still, like he’s just gotten dressed for a work meeting and fallen asleep. I run my fingers over his fingers, along the backs of his hands, under his suit jacket. I feel the autopsy staples running down his chest. He’s in a T-shirt we bought during a trip to Tofino, a green one with antlers silkscreened on the front.
Please understand what a perfect face he has. It is the face that was made for my face, the face that kissed mine for hours and hours until my chin was raw and sore for days. Long black eyelashes, a strong and sculpted nose.
What happened? He went to sleep and he didn’t wake up, that’s all I know.
Please understand how beautiful he was.
Containers for bodies and ashes are a big deal, a critical source of revenue in the funeral industry. That’s why the place where you pick out the containers looks like the showroom at a dealership, but with urns and caskets instead of cars.
I approach a shelf of urns. Some of them look like jewellery boxes, but they have framed pictures on the lids, featuring glamour shots of the happiest old people ever, smiling as big as they can, knowing they’re going to get to spend eternity in a pewter box that’s now 15 percent off.
There are also fancy ones with engraved plaques that say things like:
He gives His beloveds sleep …
In God’s care …
Her wings were ready …
“These are all terrible and ridiculous,” I tell the funeral director.
“Oh, dear. Well, we can certainly go through the catalogue if you don’t see anything to your liking.”
What the managers of the industry of death don’t want you to know, because they’re on commission, is that you put ashes in pretty much anything. I learned this when my dad died, and his wife went to Value Village and purchased a coffee canister for $6.99.
“My dad is in a coffee tin,” I tell the director, “so I’m pretty sure Sam can go in any receptacle as long as it’s sealable.”
“Well, that is true. However, these products are designed specifically as keepsakes for remains, and they come with a guarantee.”
“A guarantee for what?”
Everybody looks at me as if I just burst out laughing in a funeral parlour, because I did.
Thirty minutes later I am with Sam’s family at the mall. We have come to the mall because it is a place with many stores, and we can all split up, which is obviously a more efficient way to locate an affordable sealable container for our loved one. I find myself in a fancy home-accessories store called Bombay Company. The saleswomen are dripping in gold, painted with orange foundation and caked blush. One of them is trying to be subtle about keeping an eye on me, which is very reasonable of her. I haven’t slept in days and my face definitely has the puffy look of a shoplifter. I am also wearing sweatpants and a coffee-stained T-shirt that says Obey Cthulhu.
“Can I help you here, sweetheart?”
“Okay, what is it that I can help you with?”
“A container for my spouse’s ashes. It has to be sealable.”
She grimaces, tries to smile. I am examining a very lovely, extra-large jewellery box encrusted in fake sapphires with an elephant head on top.
“I like this one,” I tell her, “but I think it might be too small. He was six foot one, so I don’t know how much ashes he’ll make. Also, do you have any that play music? Like T. Rex or Nick Cave?”
“Pardon me?”
My phone rings. It’s Ingrid, Sam’s sister.
“Come to HMV,” she is shouting. “I’ve found the perfect thing. It’s a fucking Death Star cookie jar — come!”
I tell the saleslady that my sister-in-law has found a Death Star cookie jar, which is perfect since my dead beloved was a Star Wars fan and our son was born on May the fourth.
“I might be back for this elephant one if the Death Star doesn’t work,” I tell her.
“Oh my,” she says.

Editorial Reviews

In this remarkably intimate portrait of grief, Chelsea Wakelyn deftly weaves comedy and tragedy in the wake of a marriage destroyed by drug poisoning. With a sure touch, Wakelyn dismantles the stereotypes of those affected by this too common issue. The narrator’s unique voice is at once relatable and unhinged, the powerful pulls of rage and love on full and magnificent display, bringing to life a fully realized humanity as only honestly drawn fiction can do.

Lilian Nattel, bestselling author of The River Midnight and Girl At The Edge of Sky

What Remains of Elsie Jane reads like a side-splitting obituary. A poignant, laugh-out-loud funny, weird, and heartbreaking window into being bereft and being in love. This book is a striking reminder that there can be beauty in devastation.

Emily Austin, author of Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

This novel about death just pulses with life, with a force as compelling as the one that kept me turning the pages. I absolutely adored it.

Kerry Clare, author of Asking for a Friend

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.

The Miramichi Reader

Elsie is depicted so clearly in her absurd state of loss, a powerful feat which resonates…I needed this book, and maybe you do, too.

Vancouver Writers Fest

This is Wakelyn’s first book, and she demonstrates an astounding talent for combining comedy with tragedy. In this aspect, Wakelyn shares many of Miriam Toews’ extraordinary gifts.

The British Columbia Review

It’s a beautifully written, complicated, intimate story that’s as weird as it is honest — just as grief often is. I highly recommend!

The Southern Bookseller

What Remains of Elsie Jane reads like A Year of Magical Thinking, if it had been written by Nora Ephron instead of Joan Didion — but by a Nora Ephron who coped with tragedy by clumsily summoning wizards instead of making carbonara.

What Remains of Elsie Jane is an exploration of grief that manages to avoid self-seriousness. The behaviour of those around the aggrieved is so sharply observed you’ll think that Evelyn Waugh dipped in to give his notes on the behaviour of Pacific Northwest millennials. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me blush, sometimes it made me do all three on the same page.

Eva Jurczyk, author of The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

This sense of the novel as TV is exacerbated by Elsie’s fast-paced, acutely self-aware speech, rather reminiscent of Gilmore Girls.

Literary Review of Canada

To read What Remains of Elsie Jane is to encounter a raw, sometimes angry, and always messy grief. Wakelyn captures a woman falling apart and putting herself back together in the dynamic voice of her complicated protagonist. In her multiverse-curious widowhood, Elsie is unrelentingly hopeful without being cheerful, loving without being good.

Liz Harmer, author of The Amateurs and Strange Loops

The novel handles the complexities of grief through sarcasm and Elsie’s personal thoughts as she attempts to regain control of her life…It’s her obsession with her fantasy that helps Elsie to stay afloat.

Foreword Reviews

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