The family stories in contemporary CanLit are not all that different from the stories and novels read by my grandmother’s generation.
The women in my family did not read obsessively, no, but regularly, yes. What else was there to do in the evenings when your favourite show was in reruns and you’d seen the movie which was playing in the theatre downtown. They read a lot of family stories. (The men would read spy and detective novels and war stories.)
Whether the chunky volumes of Susan Howatch or the sprawling multi-volume series of Mazo de la Roche, the escapades of a family were enough of a story to pull my grandmother and great aunts back to their books, night after night. Only rarely sneaking a few pages while the men read the newspaper after dinner or in the commercials during the 6 o’clock news: reading was a before-you-turn-out-the-light activity.
Three recent novels by Canadian writers have had me reflecting on what makes a good story about a Canadian family these days.
All of this with a nod to the novels by Canadian writers who have given me a backdrop against which to cast these musings: Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House and Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, Lauren B. Davis’ The Stubborn Season and Ali Bryan’s The Figgs, Barry Dempster’s The Outside World and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles, Tomson Highway’s The Kiss of the Fur Queen and Cecil Foster’s Independence, and Angie Abdou’s In Case I Go and Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart (Trans. Peter McCambridge).
And, more recently: Fran Kimmel’s No Good Asking (2018), Keith Maillard’s Twin Studies, and Joey Comeau’s Malagash.
Fran Kimmel’s No Good Asking (2018) presents the Nyland family. When Eric offers a ride to twelve-year-old Hannah, down the road in a winter storm, to the house she is sharing with the man who was married to her mother, the Nyland family is poised for change. Eric has grown up in the community and has history with this man (who has a history with violence), so he checks on the girl and the situation escalates until she enters the foster care system.
But it’s just a few days before Christmas and it’s difficult to place Hannah in the system, so she boards temporarily with the Nylands. A family which is already dealing with depression and baby loss, teenage-hood and a young boy with a spectrum disorder, an aging father with dementia and an aging overly-farty dog. So, an ordinary family.
Kimmel (who trod this troubled-girlhood territory in her first novel, The Shore Girl) astutely walks the line between dysfunction and coping. A slim volume, only covering a few days in the lives of Eric and Ellie, Daniel and Sammy, Walter and Thorn, No Good Asking pulls readers into the story hard and fast, offering a satisfying but perfectly incomplete conclusion.
Keith Maillard’s Twin Studies is openly pursuing the question of what makes us tick, how we are united and distinct, and what factors contribute to our truest sense of belonging (to groups and to our own selves).
“The mere continuity of things was comforting, wasn’t it? Well, it was supposed to be – the bright flicker of the TV, the homey glow of the fire in the fireplace, the beehive hum of a house full of kids, the pounding of rain on the windows to remind her that they were safe inside, and here was Drew, his hand falling onto her shoulder in his standard gesture of affection, patting her like a dog.”
But the continuity of things falls short for the characters in this story, particularly for two sets of twins. The living set of twins are not as united genetically as they want to believe themselves to be and their identities diverge as often as they align. And the broken set of twins raises the question of how a surviving twin struggles to locate an identity as a single entity. Marriages are fractured and policies are broken. (And for those readers with a horse in the race of fractured CanLit stories, you can figure that the UBC goings-on are simmering beneath this story: “So then all of this drama was about a slap? How pathetic. What real problems did she have?”)
Where Kimmel’s prose is stark and stream-lined, Maillard’s is dense and swollen (reading very quickly with its extensive use of dialogue and emails), and Joey Comeau’s Malagash is different yet again, trim but lyrical (and as much about what is unwritten as what is written).
(Joey Comeau has written so many good books. Hard to choose a favourite.)
“Come hang out with your dumb, weird family,” Sunday’s mom says. But Sunday is preoccupied. She is writing a computer virus, which contains part of a sound file she has created from her recordings of her father’s voice. In the weeks leading up to his death. “So the virus will say his words for him; it will copy them into memory. Into the long stretches of unused storage. Like an echo in an empty room.”
Inside Sunday’s father, cancer cells are replicating, like the virus she’s writing will replicate through hardware, long after her father has died. Like she and her brother repeat that they do not want their father to die. Like obituaries repeat the same tired phrases that people utter in the wake of a loss. “You could write some poetry about how the house is a metaphor for your poor old heart, crushed under the inescapable weight of passing time.” Sunday’s mother has a laugh hidden in her voice.
This is the kind of detail that you can hear in a recording. But no matter how many recordings Sunday makes, no matter how many variations she records (on laughter, on reassurance, on love), there is a distinction between copies and creation, between memories and life. And there is the question of how this data, how these repeating patterns of 1’s and 0’s come together and come apart, perhaps more than any of that, this question of how we transmit what we have and what we yearn for, so that what we have lost does not overwhelm everything else.
Family stories – their fractures and their losses – comment on what matters most, on how we move through every day and how we imagine moving through our tomorrows.
Matters of bloodline and inheritance have faded into the background, but troubles (with money, health and premature deaths) and arguments (over betrayals, politics and religion) are still fuelling this generation’s stories.