“always reconstructing”

Reviewed by Maia Joseph

“In order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story,” the character Bernard reflects toward the end of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, “and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories.” Bernard, the storyteller among The Waves’ six primary characters, goes on in this moment to express his desire “for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words.” But Sina Queyras—who has engaged extensively with Woolf ’s work in her poetry, and whose first novel, Autobiography of Childhood, seems to listen and respond to Bernard’s words—has made the surprising move, for a poet, of turning toward narrative. As the title suggests, Queyras attends in her novel to that most deeply rooted yet always shape-shifting story, that story which is “always reconstructing as we remember” (as Queyras puts it): the story of childhood. She also explores the story that so often refuses to be a story, that most threatens to leave us broken and inarticulate: the story of death.

Author of four poetry collections, editor of an anthology of Canadian poetry, and a popular and respected poetry blogger, Queyras has proven herself an important generative force in Canadian and international poetry circles. In reflections for The Poetry Foundation on her turn to the novel, she has emphasized her interest in the form’s capacity for entering the thoughts and experiences of others, and for offering “not necessarily replications of reality, but versions, slices, illuminations.” The novel form allows her “to see what gets in [people’s] way and how they handle it.”

In Autobiography of Childhood, Queyras illuminates the lives of six members of the Combal family—siblings Therese, Guddy, Jerry, Bjarne, and Annie and father Jean— on the day that Therese dies of cancer. The family members are all grown, dispersed, and in many ways deeply disconnected, having never fully recovered from the death of another sibling, Joe, in childhood. Queyras has described Autobiography of Childhood as “perhaps” a poet’s novel; and certainly its multi-perspectival and serial qualities, as well as Queyras’ interest in the “why” of action in the text, place the book in the tradition of the Canadian poet’s novel as defined by Ian Rae in his recent study From Cohen to Carson: The Poet’s Novel in Canada. Dividing her novel into six sections and focalizing the narrative through the perspective of each character in turn, Queyras explores how the characters remain “tethered” to their childhoods through the stories they tell about it and how their stories inflect their experiences and relationships with each other. The power of these stories, in Queyras’ account, makes childhood an almost palpable presence accompanying the characters as they move through their adult lives. By setting each childhood story alongside those of siblings and parents, Queyras is able to foreground the stories’ limits and fissures and to show how they emerge in intimate relation to others.

Autobiography of Childhood can, as I indicated at the outset, be read as a return to and renovation and resituation of Woolf ’s work. The novel resembles The Waves in its attention to the interlocking lives of six characters, and also, structurally, in the brief interlude sections that Queyras uses to divide the main sections of her text. In her attempt to articulate the form and feel of childhood memories—their highly sensual, embodied, and emotional qualities—Queyras also works in similar territory to Woolf ’s autobiographical “A Sketch of the Past.” And in making a lost loved one an organizing force in the experiences of her characters, Queyras remembers not only The Waves, but also To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room. But while Queyras returns to Woolf ’s work in her novel, Autobiography of Childhood is decidedly distinctive and contemporary. Queyras attends carefully to the way that a combination of social forces, family experiences, and apparently innate personality traits shapes each of her characters, informing how they respond to a range of situations, from job demands in an increasingly unstable labour market to the death of a sibling. Emerging from working-class roots, the Combals each face the limited options and precariousness in their lives differently, sometimes deepening and sometimes fraying connections with each other as they do so.

While Autobiography of Childhood is primarily concerned with the bonds between members of a family, it is also about the love for—and loss of—a city. The novel is especially timely in this sense, coming as it does during a period when, as poet and critic Jeff Derksen has observed, public and private stakeholders are increasingly championing and relying on our love of the city as they promote projects and forms of urban change that are not necessarily in our best interest. Queyras approaches the idea of loving a city with the criticality that Derksen encourages, highlighting the social and economic conditions which make this love difficult, complicated, and, for some, impossible.

Set in Vancouver during the period leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Autobiography of Childhood highlights not only the city’s natural beauty and progressive spirit, but also the rampant real estate speculation and periods of intensive redevelopment that have punctuated Vancouver’s history, the lack of affordable housing, and the limited job market. The character Guddy, who left Vancouver for graduate school knowing she would probably never be able to return, aches for the city. Her brother Jerry, relegated to a basement suite in the suburbs, hates the city and the greed that, for him, it represents. Therese—having hung on until she finally found her way off a housing waitlist and into a subsidized apartment—loves Vancouver defiantly, even though her decision to stay restricts her career options. Just as Queyras’ characters have developed their stories in relation to each other, so too has the city shaped those stories. Queyras treats this connection with the same sensitivity and perceptiveness that she devotes to family ties, bringing the city alive through a series of small but potent details in her characters’ thoughts and reminiscences. Such dedicated attention to people in place makes Autobiography of Childhood not only a powerful portrait of a family suffering in the wake of loss, but also a vital contribution to urban literature in Canada.

This review ““always reconstructing”” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 188-90.

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