Joshua Henkin’s latest novel is a further contribution to the subset that deals with loss and grief in a family. The Frankls are a well-off and well-educated family, their children all grown, when youngest son, Leo, is killed in Iraq on a journalistic assignment covering the American occupation. When the novel opens, a year has passed since his death and the family are gathering at their holiday home in Lenox over the fourth of July celebrations in order to stage a private memorial service, the original funeral having been usurped by media interest and politics. But as ever with families, their ability to focus wholly on the person lost is compromised by the disruptions and consequences that Leo’s death has had on their own lives. His parents, Marilyn and David, have the unpleasant news to break that they are splitting up after 42-years of marriage, unable to support one another in grief. When asked in a social situation how many children they have, Marilyn replied four, whilst David – the conflict-avoidant, unobtrusive partner – says three. In the fallout of this conversation in which everything is said about their irreconcilable approaches to loss, Marilyn takes the decision to leave. And once they have decided to tell their children after the memorial service, Marilyn cannot help but blurt it out the moment the family is gathered together.
Those so-called children are all adults with problems of their own. Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel are trying without much success to conceive, the consequence of a sudden fierce urge on Clarissa’s part in the wake of her brother’s death. Lily, who has told partner Malcolm to stay home the better to deal with her relatives, is struggling with guilt about her lack of emotion, and Noelle, the problem child of the family, cannot help but continue to cause trouble. She has left America behind her to become an Orthodox Jew living in Israel with her husband and four young sons. Whilst the rest of her family is ferociously anti-Bush (and if you love Bush, this is not the novel for you), Noelle sees in him a fellow enemy against terrorism and blames the Americans and their occupation for Leo’s death instead. But whilst these political machinations promise much, they are continually overshadowed by the usual family tensions. Marilyn and David have gone to great expense to buy kosher plates and food for Noelle and her family so they can eat together, but Noelle still refuses, bringing corned beef hash sandwiches out of her luggage, on the grounds that the kitchen itself is not kosher. You can’t help but feel that she’s just that sort of person, though, awkward, stubborn, ornery.
To complete the cast of characters there’s Thisbe, Leo’s widow, who brings their three-year-old son, Calder with her. Thisbe is in a new relationship, one that has become serious far more quickly than she expected, and she is torn as to the appropriateness of confessing as much to her in-laws. Thisbe is a solitary figure in the midst of this big and bruising family, uncertain how much contact she wants – or is obliged – to have with them in the future. And to round things off, in the background is Gretchen, the uber-rich granny, a formidable figure who is more than prepared to use her wealth to manipulate her descendents.
So you can see that this is a book with a big cast of characters, and Joshua Henkin does a fine job of developing them. Drama and event are eschewed and instead, as the family mill about the locality, wasting time on holiday in the build-up to the memorial itself, we are witness to long, meandering conversations between them in which they conjure up the past, consider how Leo’s loss has affected them and struggle to find a way through emotional obstacles. There will be no great revelations, not even much in the way of change, for this is a portrait of a family in uncomfortable transition, and Henkin’s approach here is profoundly realistic.
For me this was a psychologically astute novel and a brilliant portrait of the kind of unwitting ugliness that families indulge in during troubled times. The injunction to be true to oneself might not be so enthusiastically propounded if we saw often enough from the outside how flawed those selves may be. But for me, the delicate pace falls too often into stultification – just I suppose as nostalgia messes with real time – as conversational exchanges become vehicles for more and more back story, all of it contributing to a layered representation of family life, but at the expense of penetration into the events of the moment. It’s hard to look backwards in depth and keep an interesting, urgent conversation going in the foreground. Equally the possibilities for drama here, both emotional and political, are rich and it feels a little strange occasionally that Henkin doesn’t make as much as he could of his complex situation. However, this is a narrative of quality, without a graceless sentence in it, and it’s ambitious, too, in its refusal to sentimentalise or sensationalise. The peculiar way that grief is processed by behaviour as much as words is beautifully made manifest.