Thursday, October 16, 2014

Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman

As I read Home Leave, the above Gaiman’s quote echoed through my head incessantly (until I eventually googled it to find the exact right wording).  Home Leave is a perfect example of an author telling a story only she can tell.  Sonnenberg’s own childhood growing up on three continents allowed her to convincingly write about an American family’s expatriate life. Her own experiences give her characters an authenticity that grounds the story.

I read about Sonnenberg and review of Home Leave before actually reading the book, so I was aware that the main storyline tracked Sonnenberg’s own experiences. The novel is about an American couple raising their two daughters abroad.  Tragedy strikes and the novel probes: would this tragedy have occurred if the family was living somewhere else?  Sonnenberg, grew up outside the US and suffered the death of her sister.  She initially started writing a memoir but found fiction to be a better vehicle for making sense of her own history. While Sonnenberg’s experiences ground the novel, it is her inventive narration that captured my interest.

The novel is told from various perspectives. The first narrator is the house at 1116 Arcadia Avenue, Elise Kriegstein (formerly Elise Ebert) childhood home. 1116 Arcadia Avenue is a unique narrator and her voice is quite distinct.  Even upon re-reading I marvel over the sentences:

“But I was so thrilled to see Elise that I didn’t dwell on her odd behavior, or on the fact that my insides felt like they had ten years earlier, during Vidalia’s only recorded earthquake.  Most of my friends, the older ones, can recall similar incidents of shakiness or decay and the depression that followed, knowin they were now officially over the hill.” 

It’s a clever construct to have a house reveal family secrets, and yet one that makes so much sense.  So much occurs within a family home, and so many stories lurk inside physical spaces.  A house with an aging matriarch would see and understand a family but also have its own unique lens outside of each family member.  1116 Arcadia Avenue reveals a great deal about the Ebert family, and her narration helps the reader to understand why Elise desired to leave Vidalia and her family history behind, and why she has been away for five years. She also slowly reveals additional details about the tragic events in Elise and Chris’s life.  1116 Arcadia also narrates Ada’s (Elise’s mother ) decline and mourns the loss of its complicated inhabitants. Later, Sonnenberg introduces the idea that deceased people can come back to life in the form of houses – an interesting idea that connects to other fanciful narrations in the story.

Next the reader journeys to a retirement community in Chariton, Indiana.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents are newly ensconced in this world, when they receive a phone call from a student creating a Chariton High Athletes: Where Are They Now feature for the school newspaper.  Chris was a basketball star at Chariton High School; his skills on the court catapulted him from his small town to the University of Georgia and eventually to a professional life that spanned countries and continents.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents – Joy and Frank-- have compelling voices. They sound like many aging seniors. They gave up their farm, they wish their son was closer, they don’t understand scanning, they try their best to understand the next generation’s choices. Joy believes her daughter “missed her train” when she broke off her engagement to a high school geometry teacher in 1975.  Frank has started tearing up quite a few times a day.  He takes it upon himself to respond to the high school newsletter which was factually inaccurate and writes a letter to the editor.  Ultimately Joy decides to write her own article too – about her single fifty year old daughter who “puts things where they belong.”  Overall, this chapter helps the reader to understand Chris’s unique family history while also seeing that storytelling is uniquely different based on who controls the pen.

Part two finally provides the perspective of Chris and Elise.  In Germany in 1981, Chris rides his bike to work each weekday, and Elise sleeps in while gestating their first daughter. Elise is contacted by a German family with a similar last name who is mourning their daughter and mother and is powered forward through a unique experience.  The new parents are then in India and Philadelphia.  Eight thousand miles apart from each other, each encounter a corpse and are deeply shaken. Both return home with important news – another baby and another home base.  We are introduced to the idea of the new child, before we suddenly learn of her death.

In some ways the structure of the novel is unsettling. In the beginning it was hard to figure out where the story was going.  It took a while to realize that part of the novel was being narrated by a ghost.  But I think the unsettling narration successfully helps the reader to better understand the experience of being an expatriate.  We are jostled and zoomed forward, we arrive places before we are ready to get there. We have to turn back to previous chapters to remind ourselves of specific details.  We are traversing different time periods and continents and thus we can truly understand what it means to live life in a different country.

In Part four, we see the aftermath – we get to see the experiences of the family through the eyes of the remaining daughter, and we get to feel her sense of displacement as well as her hunger for a sense of home.  We also get to see how Chris – the roving father—has been affected by his loss.  He dreads Leah’s wedding as it marks a further step away from the time when they were an intact party of four.

Sonnenberg has created unique characters with unique experiences and very specific lens on the world.  They felt deeply real to me – self-centered, flawed, broken, striving, human.  She has taken her own experiences and used them to create such an artful universe full of probing and lingering questions.  I highly recommend Home Leave and know I will read it again and likely glean even more meaning from its themes and stylistic choices.

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