Thank you so much for your kind words yesterday about my back. It’s feeling much better now, just a bit stiff. Instead my poor son has gone down with a nasty throat virus-thingy so I am still writing from a medical ward. We’re obviously just having one of those collective low-health moments.
But I am also behind with my reviews, which is at least something I can fix. So, moving swiftly on to another comic novel, and one that takes as its basis the tragic question of what can be done for children who have never known stability. It’s odd, isn’t it, how funny novels are so often built on heartbreaking premises? Canadian writer, Miriam Toews has carved herself a niche for dealing with the problems of adolescence and in The Flying Troutmans, her fifth novel, she rewrites the buddy road trip to moving and amusing effect. Hattie Troutman is living in Paris and has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Just as well, then, that she has something to distract her, in the form of a phone call from her 11-year-old niece, Thebes. Hattie’s sister, Min, has long been a clinical depressant and it turns out she’s having a particularly dark episode, unable to eat, unable to be touched, unable to get out of bed. Her children, Thebes and her 15-year-old brother, Logan, don’t know what to do with her any more and need some adult intervention. Hattie’s lived with Min’s problems all her life, and whilst she doesn’t have any solutions, she knows that she’s the only person left to do anything at all. She flies back to Canada, sees Min into hospital, and finds herself with two disturbed, disruptive and suffering children on her hands.
Hattie’s solution is to take off in the family’s decrepit van to cross America in search of the children’s long-lost father. Thebes sits in the back with purple hair, filthy clothes, a vast bag of art supplies and the anxiety-induced need to talk incessantly. She passes her time in metaphysical discussion and the manufacture of novelty-sized cheques for anyone who’ll have them. Logan, by contrast, is on the verge of shutting down. He prefers to tune his family out, his headphones pumping music by scary-sounding groups whilst he carves messages into the dashboard with his knife. His only other need is to find a basketball court every now and then to practice shooting. As they drive and bicker and bond their way to California, Hattie’s narrative intersperses the present with memories of Min’s childhood and its wearying series of psychotic moments. Although Hattie has all the hallmarks of adulthood, it’s clear that growing up alongside Min and feeling the inevitable burden of responsibility has prevented her from finding her direction in life. She desperately wants to lift the troubles from the shoulders of her niece and nephew, and give them courage and purpose and hope, but on this road trip, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.
Toews’ characters are all people who don’t have anything if they can’t quite manage to have each other. These aren’t kids with plans and ambitions, and Hattie has nowhere else to be, no work to love, only the dull ache of dissatisfaction with her life choices. Toews understands that you can only be yourself if you can leave your family behind, and you can only do that if your family is strong and stable enough to let you go. Otherwise, there is little to be had of interest and engagement outside the family bonds, all routes lead back to the place of origin and its contagious flaws. But in her three characters, she does an amazingly good job of producing entertaining and lovable neurotics. She captures tremendously well the love-hate scrapping of siblings, their boundless and yet pointless creativity in the games they play, their breathtaking ability to stick the knife in, and their deep, protective love. It was only about halfway through the book, in a moment when I suddenly felt claustrophobic with the story, that I realized how unflinching Toews’ focus is on her characters. They are rarely interspersed with other people and barely get out of the van. And yet it was the only moment of claustrophobia I suffered. The pace and the whipcrack dialogue and the incident keep coming until you are cheerfully bound up with them, hoping as much as they do that some kind of redemption lies at the end of the route.
This is a beautifully written book, consistently funny and poignant and troubled. It does have a very particular emotional ideology that it buys into, however. It belongs to the school of thought that suggests you can never properly intervene on behalf of another, but if you just keep going, if you let life unfold, things will come right. There is a strong but unspoken belief in the resources of the world that powers the positive side of this narrative. We are never invited to wonder where Hattie’s money comes from, or how the family feed themselves, or whether Thebes will run out of art supplies in the middle of the desert. The search that matters is the quest for good enough love, love that will not falter or flinch, love that asks for nothing special in return. The essence of good parental love, in other words. Everything is subordinate to that particular search, but also complicit with it. If we look, the story suggests, we will find. It’s a lovely message, and one that keeps what could have been a desperately sad book in a funny, charming, hopeful place. I’m not entirely sure that the story is plausible, but who cares, I wanted it to be true and maybe there really is a way to turn every life around, regardless of the damage it’s sustained. This is a big-hearted book that acknowledges the power of the world to wound, only on condition that we never lose sight of its equal potential to heal.