Mothers, Aunts, and Daughters

Reviewed by Tina Northrup

Kalyana and Friendly Fire are two slim novels that follow similar patterns. Both are coming-of-age stories, and, in each, a young first-person narrator experiences a life-changing trauma. In Kalyana, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Kalyana Seth, is raped by an uncle when she is eleven years old, and in the weeks, months, and years that follow, she nurses a long-standing grudge against her mother, who urges her never to tell another person about her uncle’s crime. In Friendly Fire, Darby Swank discovers the dead body of a beloved aunt floating face-down in a river, ring finger missing, and is soon forced to question her loyalty to her family as she grapples with the conviction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that her uncle murdered his wife.

Friendly Fire begins with Darby Swank’s discovery of the dead body of her Aunt Bea. In the days and weeks that follow, the RCMP hunts for Bea’s killer while Darby grieves for her aunt and tries to sort out various other messes in her life, like the fact that she’s cheating on her boyfriend and doesn’t really see a future with him, and the fact that she’s afraid of trying (and failing) to make it as a singer. Darby is initially frustrated with the RCMP for dogging her Uncle Will rather than searching for the person who really killed her aunt, but after an RCMP officer voices her incredulity that Darby could have such a dim understanding of her uncle and aunt’s violent marriage, Darby starts to see some of her childhood memories in a new light. This transition is depicted heavy-handedly, as signs of Will’s guilt are readily apparent from quite early on in the novel, and it isn’t totally clear whether Darby is incapable of seeing them for what they are, or is simply refusing to do so. Adult readers may find the clues so obvious that Darby will soon seem unconvincingly naive, but younger readers may be drawn in more successfully.

In fact, Friendly Fire gives the overall impression of being suited to a young adult demographic more than to an adult readership, though NeWest Press’ website doesn’t identify it as a young adult novel. Whereas the website suggests instead that the novel “recalls the work of Ann-Marie MacDonald and Lynn Coady,” Guenther’s character development seems meagre by comparison. This is nowhere more obvious than in the figure of Darby’s Uncle Will, who comes across as being cartoonishly villainous because readers are given no sense of his motivations. That Will is a violent abuser, and that violent abusers abuse violently, is about the sum of his characterization, and the absence of deeper insight in this regard, as in others, diminishes the strength of the novel on the whole.

Guenther is at her strongest when describing her characters at work, play, and competition, where they employ their various skills as riders, horse trainers, and farmers. Such scenes are vividly described, and they help to leave a clear impression of the novel’s setting. Rajni Mala Khelawan demonstrates similar strengths in Kalyana, where clear descriptions make it easy to visualize how the novel’s characters appear, act, and move in relation to one another in any given scene. As in Friendly Fire, however, character development is often achieved through straightforward exposition rather than through subtler methods that would help to create more nuance and depth. In many passages, dialogue is followed by comments in which the narrator explains what various characters were thinking and feeling. These sorts of explanations aren’t necessary when the dialogue itself is more suggestive, and although Khelawan does use conversational passages and epistles more subtly at other times throughout the novel, the effect is uneven.

Kalyana is strongest throughout the chapters that deal with the narrator’s childhood. The young girl’s reaction to sexual assault is nuanced, as are the various physical and psychological consequences that appear in the weeks, months, and years that follow. In the first half of the book, Khelawan establishes a convincing and compelling tension between, on the one hand, Kalyana’s limited understanding of her own bodily, mental, and emotional reactions after having been raped, and, on the other, the adult reader’s ability to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Khelawan depicts Kalyana’s relationship to her mother with similar insight, and demonstrates how quickly, and how permanently, Sumitri Seth becomes the target of Kalyana’s anger and resentment—not for having been involved in the uncle’s crime, but for having failed to protect her daughter from rape, and, after the fact, for having failed to be her daughter’s champion and voice. It is all the more disappointing, then, that when the adult Kalyana finally develops a better understanding of her mother’s actions, the moment is underplayed, and Kalyana’s newfound insight isn’t given all of the attention it deserves. In a novel that is primarily about women’s and girls’ relationships with one another, and, in particular, the ways in which women and girls bear the burden of supporting one another amid the power and control of men, this is a significant opportunity missed.

At the heart of each novel is a young woman’s confrontation with silence—whether the silence imposed upon a victim after an attack, or the communal silences of families and communities that fail to protect victims of intimate partner violence, even when that violence is well known. The novels develop these themes with varied degrees of depth, and neither is wholly successful in developing fully realized characters with realistically complex inner lives. Each is most memorable for its plot, not for the strength of its characterization, and where this might not pose a problem in novels of a different genre, it leaves something wanting in narratives that focus primarily on their protagonists’ maturation.

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