No, it’s not that Leonard Cohen. This Leonard Cohen is an aspiring songwriter in the 1960s, or maybe he’s the butt of a joke before he has even drawn breath. His ambition is to write a song as good as one by his namesake – or maybe just to step out of the shadow of the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen.

Leonard’s story unfolds in third-person chapters and first-person letters written directly to the more famous Cohen. In 1968, Leonard travels with a group of friends to an anonymous Greek island, where he falls in love with a local girl named Daphne. This is depicted as sudden, mysterious, and all-consuming:

Then some part of him touched some part of her, his hip or hers, his hand, her shoulder, so that he could feel the restless warmth that in the morning had sweated through her clothes. Neither of them could have said who turned first. They kissed because they were there or for a hundred other reasons. You can always come up with reasons, he thought, or she thought. 

Leonard’s relationship with Daphne comes to define his life, but so does the uncertainty running through that quotation. His friends are keen to leave the island, but Daphne wants him to stay. Leonard leaves for a time, and when he returns, he finds that Daphne has apparently died, with a laurel tree (as in the myth of Apollo and Daphne) now growing on ‘their’ cliff. Leonard imagines that he hears Daphne’s voice coming from the tree, but who is to say that it’s not just the breeze?

Time moves on, with Leonard returning to the US, becoming a lawyer, marrying, bringing up two children, and growing old… He lives an entire life, but still ultimately finds himself drawn back to that island, and the laurel tree.

What really animates Jeffrey Lewis’s novel for me is the constant sense of some other version of life being just over there, beyond reach. There’s the knowledge that the ‘other’ Leonard Cohen is out there living his own life, unaware of ‘our’ Leonard. What might it be like to live without other people having a famous reference point as soon as you give your name? What if Daphne had lived, what if she still lives, what if she became that tree? What if it all happened to her instead of Leonard? 

This novel is not a kaleidoscope of possible worlds. In the end, as in life, there is just the one world, for better or worse. But it is a novel – a life, a reading – haunted by possibility. “After Daphne,” Leonard writes to Cohen, “the only stories I came to believe were the ones that could go one way or the other.”

Leonard Cohen is published by Haus Publishing.