Reviewed by Reece Steinberg

Secret and buried thoughts lurk among family members in both novels; unhappy truths cleave relationships, leading to estrangement, uncomfortable silences, affairs, career problems, and broken partnerships. Both novels include stories inside the story—stories with family consequences—one recent and carefully written as an autobiography, one barely retained by an aging woman, and grasped in dribs and drabs by her granddaughter. Whether a family history, a personal history, or a journal entry within a personal history, the stories within the meta-story offer additional voices, richness, and layers to the writing.

Gabriel, a middle-aged Haligonian, and protagonist of Turn us Again is called to his terminally ill father in England. Estranged from his family since his mother’s death years earlier, Gabriel struggles with guilt and confusion over why he had lost contact with his father. He buoys his spirits about leaving by promising himself that he will travel solo around the country, unhindered by his girlfriend Jenny. Only once Gabriel has settled into his father’s household does author Mendel reveal that Gabriel has hidden from himself that the father with whom he hoped to reconnect was physically and emotionally abusive. Mendel unwraps Gabriel’s buried history through his deceased mother’s manuscript—an autobiography thinly veiled as fiction, which includes her journal entries. The manuscript of the young nurse, and later wife and mother dominates the story; at times Gabriel and his father’s interactions are merely bookends to the chapters of Gabriel’s mother’s life. The early writing provides distressing hints of the forthcoming abuse and elevating control by Gabriel’s father.

Mendel’s layers of storytelling come together soundly and cleverly, plunging readers into the intense storyline, while breaking boundaries in time and perspective. Gabriel’s father, now aged, has read his late wife’s manuscript with painful regret. He conveys his opinion of himself as sad and misunderstood and reveals that he intends to go through the manuscript with Gabriel, providing additional information and his own views on the story and continuing to dominate his son, who does not welcome his father’s interruptions. Vitally, he is continuing to control his wife, attempting to shape what she has written even after her death, and preventing Gabriel from reading it without him.

When Gabriel returns to Halifax, ready to lean heavily on his girlfriend after the emotional turmoil he experienced with his father, he is shocked to find her less indulgent than he expected. Soon Gabriel’s abusive behavior rises to the surface of their relationship. Both the manuscript within the book and the book itself end abruptly. The manuscript is unfinished, and ends with potentially transformative thoughts after an instance of abuse; Gabriel’s mother promises herself she will leave her husband. Gabriel’s girlfriend Jenny does move out, though the relationship doesn’t end.

Mendel’s realistic, careful writing explores cycles of abuse, and the differences made by the era in which the abuse occurs and the level of support for abuse survivors. Mendel tells the story of two men, but gives a woman—the woman who felt unable to leave an abusive situation—more of a voice than either her son or her husband. The author notes that this story is her mother’s, and the warmth and realism conveyed in the writing makes it evident that it is a story she cares deeply about sharing.

Marital turmoil, depression, breaking and shifting friendships, and a challenging genetic disorder swirl around the story of Mia Wittenberg, a thoughtful high school student in The Wittenbergs. Descriptions of Mia’s rich, sensitive relationships with various other characters provide nuance and detail to the story; it is easy to imagine that this character is the author of the book, and perhaps she is. Mia’s father Joseph, a man struggling with uncertainty in his marriage and career, is arguably the main character of the book, but not the meat of it.

Author Sarah Klassen writes like she has incorporated family history, and her own experiences and memories into the book. The detailed writing on unusual topics: Fragile X syndrome and Ukrainian-German life and immigration point to knowledge from personal interest. A family history of life as Germans in Ukraine, pre-immigration, is written by Mia as a school project shared with a dear teacher. The story within the story is told in fits and starts, and provides a contrast of hardships and some joys faced by previous generations. Again, Mia’s connections to others in her life provide this story; while her father sees his mother as a burden, Mia happily visits her sometimes-confused grandmother, and coaxes the family stories out of her. While Turn us Again’s Gabriel tries and fails to build relationships, Mia’s relationships flourish with ease; even friendships she is growing out of seem difficult to shed. Mia’s uncomfortable friendship with wayward Danny has the potential to be buried in Mia’s family issues, but is given the thoughtful treatment it requires. Their troubled interactions are essential to portray Mia as a teenager reaching into the adult world, but not yet solidly a part of that sphere. Mia’s strength is her growing awareness of the problematic nature of several of her high school friendships, which conflicts with her need for these friendships.

The Wittenbergs offers a slightly pessimistic view of high school life—from both student and staff perspectives—and a glimpse into the struggles of an extended family. Delicately written, the novel weaves threads of hope into the lives of its characters.

This review “Meta-Stories” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 167-68.

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