We tell each other stories in order to remember who we are, but sometimes the stories we tell can imprison, not liberate. British novelist and biographer Victoria Glendinning, writing in the Financial Times about her experience as a juror for the 2009 Giller Prize, commented wickedly on the prevalence of a certain kind of Canadian novel featuring “families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine.” Reading this as a transplanted Brit, I felt enraged: how easy, I thought, to make mocking generalizations about another nation’s literature; how much harder to see the clichés in one’s own.
And yet … the fact is every nation has its genres—stories of national identity, recurrent themes—and it is hard to deny, when looking back over our prize winners and bestsellers, that Canadians love their intergenerational family sagas: big fat novels set mostly in the early to mid 20th century, which document our country’s history by focusing on a specific family’s (and often region’s) ups and downs. The plucky, courageous child protagonist who weathers rough times and emerges wise and resilient is also a common feature, as is the right lightly ironic note that conveys that although terrible events are occurring, everyone will be okay in the end.
Glendinning went on to imply that Canada Council and other grants were responsible for these cringe-inducing fictions, these monies supporting a mediocre literary environment in which small publishers “proliferate.” Last year’s stellar Giller Prize short list certainly gave the lie to this particular statement: three out of five books published by small publishers and not a single Ukrainian family saga amongst them. Nevertheless she may have identified a certain truth: not that grants result in bad books but that the intergenerational family saga has been published and praised so often in this country it is becoming impossible for anyone writing one to say something new.
Published as part of Knopf Canada’s New Faces of Fiction program, journalist and travel writer Jamie Zeppa’s debut novel, Every Time We Say Goodbye, is a definite departure from her previous award-winning travel memoir, Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. On her website Zeppa explains that some of the raw material for her novel was autobiographical (like her protagonist, Zeppa was raised in Sault Ste. Marie by immigrant grandparents). Whatever her sources, she has crafted a narrative concerned as much with fiction as truth.
The characters in Every Time We Say Goodbye are obsessed with stories: in particular, prescriptive social narratives about family and gender, and the ways in which these differ from their own. Meanwhile the novel—which traces a family’s dysfunction and hidden grief from the 1930s through to the late 20th century via, yes, multiple points of view and frequent flashbacks (in this case in Sault Ste. Marie)—negotiates its own relationship with a variety of literary genres, in particular romance fiction and immigrant Canada’s creation story, the intergenerational family saga. Jauntily written and stuffed with period details, Every Time We Say Goodbye crackles along. It is a good read, but Zeppa’s flirtation with nostalgia sometimes gets the better of her.
A portrait of the troubled Turner family, the novel is narrated by a series of different characters, mostly women, with the exception of bad-boy charmer Dean, whose charisma and unreliability provide the novel’s conflict and emotional core. Along the way Zeppa addresses, among other themes, the misunderstood nature of depression, competing childrearing practices and women’s struggle to survive economically as single or divorced parents during various stages of the last century. Through an interesting range of female characters, from teenage Dawn, desperate for a settled family life, to the stern but self-sacrificing Vera, family matriarch, we see the different strategies women take to resolve the impossible dilemma of single motherhood, a problem to which, to her credit, Zeppa makes it clear there is no easy answer—children need attachment, mothers need independence, and the two are all too often on a collision course. Grace, Vera’s sister-in-law, takes one route; Laura, Dawn’s mother, another; and meanwhile we see the cost of neglect in the younger generation’s drug use, drifting and gambling. Much of the novel’s conflict circles around the plotlines family life is supposed to follow, and the grief, relief or desperation that results when it does not.
And then there is attachment: broken bonds between mothers and children (mirroring, perhaps, the broken bonds between immigrants and their origins) are seen to cause no end of heartache and trouble. Yet ultimately the cause of Zeppa’s characters’ distress is not so much loss as the lies they are told about it: adolescent Dean deducing in isolation that he is adopted; young mother Grace, desperate for work, being instructed by her infertile sister-in-law that she must leave her infant son behind. The novel’s mad, dysfunctional mothers begin as gloriously eccentric only to lose their colour and get flattened out by the overpowering norms of social conformity. All survive, and one eventually flourishes, but the prescriptive stereotypes are not vanquished. It is hard at times not to reach the same conclusion about the novel itself.
Irony and wit can neutralize sentiment, yet too often these modes of commentary are in short supply. The narratives that define women’s lives are initially critiqued, as when the child Laura comments, “Hostilities were always followed by contact, danger by rescue, separation by reunion. In a proper story, everything ended with love.” Yet Zeppa then goes on to overwrite her love scenes: “It was a chaotic, breathless, rush … When she opened her eyes, he smiled into them. ‘God, you’re fantastic,’ he said.” An increasing onslaught of stock narrative tropes proves similarly off-putting: the boy finding secret documents in a box in the attic; the friendly, fatherly cop who returns him to his parents; the man waking his lover by throwing stones at her hotel room window; the giggling teens blithely shoplifting new clothes. The clichéd nature of such scenes could have been harnessed for ironic commentary, but instead they are given to us straight.
It is also unfortunate that, on a structural level, instead of allowing her characters space to resonate, Zeppa flits from perspective to perspective and manipulatively cranks up the narrative tension by withholding crucial information, manufacturing cliffhangers (things are looking up … now they are looking down … oh, phew, suddenly they are up again) and ushering her reader hurriedly through multiple plot twists, many of which are fuelled by corny coincidence, such as Dean overhearing, from a neighbouring room, his mother’s friends discussing his apparent origins. As a result, despite powerful flashes of complexity and intensity, a breathless kind of overdetermination wins out. Which is ironic, given some of Zeppa’s most effective imagery: “Grace already knew: the world was made of tiny pieces of nothing that flew together and stuck. One tiny granule met another in the great nothingness, and they longed for each other. There was no reason for it.”
Let those shards fall where they may! As a reader I related to her characters’ yearning, but when the story got too sweet I no longer trusted it. I wanted Zeppa to resist the lure of heartwarming set pieces and thus avoid abandoning her characters to the very stereotyped narratives she initially critiques. Perhaps, for all her colonial snobbery, Victoria Glendinning was making the same point.