National Post calls Sina Queyras's novel 'layered, reflective'
The events of childhood inescapably define us. In her haunting debut novel, Canadian poet Sina Queyras inspects the damage to the five siblings of the Combal family from a painful, traumatic upbringing that includes surviving the death of teen brother Joe in a violent accident.
The narrative centres on a second death in the family, many years later. Unlike Joe's sudden demise, Therese has been on a slow decline for decades. An artist, she's estranged to varying extents from her mother and most of her brothers and sisters. She only allows one of them, younger sister Guddy, to visit her deathbed. The novel's action takes place on Valentine's Day, as Guddy struggles to get from her home in Brooklyn to the Vancouver hospital where Therese is in the last throes of cancer.
Each section of the novel reflects the point of view of one of the Combals, including one devoted to the ghostly perspective of their deceased father, Jean, who wanders a park where he once toiled in construction work. Each senses that time is up for Therese, though not all have been informed of her critical condition. Her failing health has long placed a shroud over the family's emotional countenance, and each responds individually to her worsening condition. The mortal news is kept from matriarch Adel, who was inconsolable after Joe's passing and whose undiagnosed mental illness scarred each of her offspring in different ways.
Autobiography of Childhood's narrative approach captures the isolation that defines existence for the family's scattered members. We hear the perspective of each sibling once, then move on to the next. They express opinions -- frequently damning ones -- about one another, but we never witness them in direct communication. Much of this book concerns notions of migration to or from one's origins -- in terms of both geography and socioeconomic class. Therese and Guddy are both left-leaning lesbians and urban intellectuals, while their brother Jerry sees himself resolutely as salt-of-the-earth like his father, Jean. "Walk like a man, stink like a man," he says in tribute to their dad, who "never used a grooming product in his life."
The other surviving male Combal is Bjarne, whose schizophrenia, and desire to escape the brood, led to an arduous half-decade in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He shows up at his mother's trailer when he wants cigarettes or Tylenol 3s. Sister Annie, a veteran of four marriages of her own, is the only other family member in regular contact with their mother.
Queyras is a celebrated poet -- her 2006 collection Lemon Hound snagged both a Pat Lowther Award and a Lambda Literary Award -- and she employs vivid imagery to slice through the text’s generally meditative tone and arrest the reader's attention. Guddy watches her sister Therese swim nude and fixates upon "the scar where her breast had been, like a lightning bolt, vertical and angry." In rhythmic cadence, world-weary Annie observes the denizens of the trailer park she and her mother inhabit: "brazen feral cats … and snot-nosed brats whacking each other with plastic bats." The recurring appearance of a pack of Rothmans becomes a symbol for cross-generational coping mechanisms.
Though it follows a linear trajectory, this is far from a plot-driven novel. Heavy on interiority and light on dialogue, Autobiography of Childhood is a layered, reflective read. Each character's voice is nuanced and distinctive; they are not always likeable. Queyras parcels out information slowly, each character contributing toward a portrait of familial love that always coexists with discord and pain. Definitely not a feel-good novel, but one that stirs an emotional response.
Shawn Syms (@shawnsyms) has essays and fiction forthcoming in 2012 in several anthologies.