Breaking the Silence

Rudy Wiebe’s troubling new novel explores a suicide

An elderly relative of a friend committed suicide last year. The family put out that it was an accident. The silence at the heart of his life—the depression he never spoke of—proved too massive to shatter.

Nobody could say that Rudy Wiebe does not understand silence. His childhood in a tiny, isolated Mennonite community in Saskatchewan has shaped his perspective and his books, which have won the highest accolades in Canada, including two Governor General’s fiction awards, are full of the silences of the northern landscape. The protagonist of Come Back is Hal Wiens, who first appeared as an eight-year-old boy in Wiebe’s literary debut, Peace Shall Destroy Many, growing up like Wiebe in an isolated Mennonite community in Saskatchewan. Now in his seventies, Hal is a professor of literature retired from the University of Alberta, as is Wiebe.

Hal lives alone in Edmonton, recently widowed, his adult children moved away. He drinks coffee every morning with his Dene friend, Owl, in a coffee shop that looks out onto a busy intersection. When the novel begins, Hal sees a man in an orange down-filled coat walk past the coffee shop, and recognizes his son Gabriel, who committed suicide 25 years earlier. This sighting triggers a breakdown in Hal, who runs out into the traffic after the stranger, causing a multi-car pileup; confused and overwhelmed, he wanders home, and falls into a kind of frenzy of remembering as he reads his son’s diaries for the first time, reconstructing the last years, months and days before Gabriel’s self-asphyxiation in a pick-up truck at the family cottage.

Come Back is not about the mystery of the man in the down-filled coat, but about the breaking of silence around a suicide. As the floodgates of Hal’s grief open and the story of Gabriel’s suicide becomes clearer, Hal speaks for the first time with his other children about the past.

In a recent interview with the Calgary Herald, Wiebe spoke about his own son’s 1985 suicide at the same age as Hal’s son. He gave the interview from the Coffee Culture at an Edmonton intersection at which he sits and people-watches every day, like Hal. There is a blurring of autobiography and fiction here that leaves me in discomfort as a reviewer; the father’s real anguish burns through the pages and has a silencing effect. What can one say, in the face of that pain, about a book that is so clearly personal?

A relative of another close friend, my godfather’s brother, committed suicide a couple of years ago. He had been hospitalized and his severe depression was no secret, but even so, I could not bring myself to write the word “suicide” in my condolence letter. “I’m sorry your brother jumped in front of a train?” (Too horrible.) “I’m sorry his illness finally claimed him?” (Too coy.) “I’m sorry for your loss?” (Too inadequate.) That silence falls over families and suffocates them.

Depression makes you believe that there is no way to escape it, and you can either suffer alone or force the people around you to suffer with you by sharing it. The journey Hal makes with Gabriel in his last six months of agonized diary entries captures both Gabriel’s imprisonment within his own self-hatred, and Hal’s grief as he discovers the double life of his mentally ill son.

The autobiographical undertones of Come Back have the same suppressing effect upon me that I felt when writing to my godfather, and I feel myself pulled into complicity with the silences that killed Gabriel, out of my wish to respect a real parent’s real grief, in a way I find troubling. An awful lot remains unspoken. The most obvious silence surrounds the 24-year-old Gabe’s sexual obsession with Ailsa, a 13-year-old girl, the daughter of a family friend. The intensely reserved, sexually inexperienced Gabriel can barely speak to her, but his diaries are full of half-written letters to her, interspersed with rebukes to himself (“she’s barely a teenager”) and disturbing, Lolita-esque rhapsodies (“she is lovely, more rounded breasts and buttocks, her bare feet perfect and her lower lip so full”). Neither he nor Hal ever says the word “pedophilia,” but it is hard for me not to hear it in that description. Although the novel revolves around Gabriel’s obsession, it remains strangely unexamined. In Hal’s telephone conversations with his other children, the topic is followed by quick changes of subject:

“You do know about Ailsa.”

“Yes,” Miriam said quickly. Then, “Is there much about her?”

“Enough.”

Hal’s grief is affecting, yet he rarely shows us the Gabriel he loved. We come to know Gabriel through his diaries, through the lens of his own self-hatred and shame. This book is too good at capturing how boring depression is, how circular, how self-centred, how frustrating to watch. As someone who has struggled with depression, I sympathized with that feeling. But I also shared Hal’s frustration with the long-dead Gabriel: “For the love of God, Gabe, DO SOMETHING WITH YOURSELF!” Hal bursts out. There is also a strange silence around what, exactly, this something could have been. It is as though this novel is set in an alternate universe where the psychiatric profession and its resources do not exist.

Even in 1985, the son of a loving, educated, urban family in Canada might have sought medical help or counselling, but this possibility is never even discussed, either before or after Gabriel’s death. Gabriel never asks for help, never even thinks to seek it, and those around him make only abortive, impotent attempts to help him talk. He finds no solace within the Mennonite faith whose hymns, songs and prayers punctuate the novel. Hal imagines a possible future for Gabriel with his friend, Beth: “Why didn’t she seduce Gabe? Her body, her powerful character could surely have overrun that fixation on an avoiding child, soak him in pleasure … Beth, why didn’t you?,” then at once rejects “his stupid instinctive male thinking.” He does not come up with an alternative, though, and this vague blame assigned to the women in Gabriel’s life, including Ailsa, “a girl two months a teen. Unimaginably dangerous,” remains the only real expression of Hal’s anger around Gabriel’s death.

Hal’s response to his own near-breakdown suggests that he, too, remains trapped within this silence. Inexplicably, he tells nobody except his friend Owl about the man in the orange down-filled coat; he refuses to accept his children’s offers to come and visit; he eludes the police who come looking for him, and avoids any knowledge of the injuries or deaths he may have caused by his dash across the road. Equally inexplicably, the barista at the coffee shop—Becca, another of the novel’s “silently lovely” teenage girls (that description makes my skin crawl) shields him from the police. Nothing is learned, nothing is changed. The novel ends with a series of unanswered questions.

Perhaps that inability to imagine an alternative future, to find the language to express anger at a beloved person who is gone, is the reality of living with suicide. But it does not make for a very satisfying novel.