Review: Holden After & Before by Tara McGuire

My Quick Take: This book felt like a privilege to read and something entirely unto itself. A moving meditation on loss, and a celebration of a life in all its complexities.

My great thanks to ZG Stories and Arsenal Pulp Press for sending me a finished copy of the book in exchange for my honest thoughts.


Tara McGuire is a North Vancouver-based former radio broadcaster and now writer who has written a book about her son Holden, who died of an accidental opioid overdose in Vancouver in 2015 at the age of 21.

This book is hard for me to define, or put words to. I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is so many things. It is entirely Holden’s story, but also part contribution to the ongoing discussion of the toxic drug-poisoning crisis. This book humanizes the issue, so that while reading I couldn’t distance myself. I became part of the conversation along with Tara and Holden.

Holden After & Before is also an expression and exploration of grief. McGuire writes evocatively about it: “I began to think of grief as a physical place. A bleak wasteland lined with barbed wire and riddled with hidden land mines. A no man’s land, a waypoint between the woman I’d used to be and the one I was to become.” McGuires’s grief is enormous–too big to contain within herself, perhaps–so she ventures into Holden’s world, seeking out the police station where he would have been booked and spent the night shortly before his death; a safe drug use site, where she observes a man smoking heroin, and has a genuine and generous conversation with him about how it feels; communing with his friends and having them show her where they went with Holden. Listening to them talk about him, for better and worse.

She fills in the parts of Holden’s story that she can never know, like his movements, his choices, his ups and downs. These are her own constructions: fiction.
“Though I have excavated some of the details of Holden’s last year, truth is a theoretical impossibility, which makes this an imagined story. And imagination is a personal and fickle creature. The way I see and interpret the course of Holden’s life is most certainly not the way others see and interpret it. The only fact is he’s gone.”
So what is this book that she’s created? It's part non-fiction, part fiction, part reconstruction. It’s a conversation, confessional and wish. It’s a mix of biography, autobiography, and a sort of conjuring. Sometimes as I was reading, her lens changed abruptly from her own to Holden’s point of view, giving a sense of otherworldliness: a mixture of the real, the constructed, the metaphysical and the fanciful. Sometimes it feels a symbiosis of mother and son. How can it not be?

She’s given Holden his story and created a narrative for him and for her, a solidity where there was none: words in a document, a book she can hold, and that the reader can hold. McGuire has done this with so much love and transparency that it’s sometimes challenging to read, but so worth it.

One thing this book is not, is an absolution, of society or of herself. She openly discusses her own lingering guilt and shame, and that was difficult to see, though I appreciate that she so openly let the reader know that honest part of herself. I thought a lot about my own life and experiences parenting while I was reading, though I have not been through such loss. All of our stories are unique, but I suspect many of us doubt or regret our choices sometimes, particularly in retrospect. If we acted or chose differently, would our lives or our children’s lives change for the better? I think that most of us–as parents and as people–do the best that we can with the information and skills that we have at the time.

I am grateful to have read this book because McGuire wrote it and it is meaningful to her, to Holden’s memory, and to all of us who live in a society where we could use more empathy and action. She calls some of what she writes, “informed fiction.” I hope that it stays with me. I hope I can hold on to the empathy that I found, and that I can take that with me as I walk through our city and negotiate the everyday interactions with people at different places in their lives from me. I hope to not distance myself from the opioid crisis and to not dismiss those in need.

“Why write at all? Why point a searchlight into the painful depths of my son’s darkest moments? Because not talking perpetuates the suffering. More of the same silence that causes substance users to feel ashamed, judged, and isolated will not protect anyone, nor change anything, nor prevent any more deaths. When we remain quiet, the burden continues to be carried by those who cannot bear it. Through dialogue, we have the opportunity to open our minds and our hearts.”