The recent boom in home DNA testing has brought us many things: ubiquitous ancestry composition pie charts, bizarre facts such as whether a person is likely to be fond of cilantro, and — to many customers’ dismay — the unveiling of long-held secrets. Canadian statistics are hard to find, but a 2022 survey by the market research and data analytics firm YouGov found that 33 percent of American test takers learned they had close relatives they didn’t know about previously. That’s no small thing when you consider that around one in five adults in the United States reports having used a mail‑in kit.
Given this vast and ever-growing landscape of family revelations, Kyo Maclear’s Unearthing is sure to resonate deeply with many. In the wake of her father’s death, the novelist and children’s author known for her nature-inspired writing details a harrowing three-year journey to understand her origins. But the memoir is about so much more than solving genetic mysteries. It sheds light on the complexity of social bonds and offers beautiful explorations of forgiveness and the elusive nature of truth.
The author, who lives in Toronto, began her odyssey when she innocently ordered an at‑home genetic test and sped past the warning: “You may discover unanticipated facts about yourself or your family when using our services that you may not have the ability to change.” When the results arrived in her inbox and she saw that her paternal DNA bore no resemblance to her father’s, she briefly considered whether his assumed Irish ethnicity had been wrong, before facing the discomfiting truth. In her trademark style, she borrows images from the landscape to express the emotional experience. “Inside the chamber of my heart,” she explains, “I carried a list of facts and a list of feelings. I tried to get them to speak to one another as I walked by the river, where great slabs of ice were loosening. The sun-shimmering plates shifted and collided in a ballet of solidity and solubility.”
When she first raised the subject of her background with her mother, she was told she was conceived at a fertility clinic on Harley Street, in London, England. But something about the story felt off. The silver-haired Japanese woman, usually impervious, seemed hesitant and a little distraught, so Maclear enlisted a “search angel” to untangle a web of DNA matches. A genealogical investigation ultimately pointed to five possible fathers.
The author’s account of her ensuing quest to locate her biological parent and understand the circumstances of her conception often feels like a riveting mystery novel, with a new clue on each page. Short episodic chapters make for odd pacing, but Maclear’s thought-provoking prose keeps the reader engaged. For instance, after she was rebuffed by a close cousin match, she contextualized her disappointment within the broader human desire for belonging. Was this cousin really kin? Did he owe her anything? “The questions were not just about myself,” she realizes, “but about all people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, shaky arrivals, showing up unannounced, trying to migrate into a kind of safety or homecoming.”
When Maclear finally deduced the identity of her birth father, a new origin story emerged: she was the product of an extramarital affair. Unearthing then tracks her stumbling attempts to piece together a sequence of events that happened decades ago. In particular, she displays incredible grace and empathy for her mother, despite the ailing woman’s frustrating, ever-shifting narrative about who knew what when. Rather than fixating on moral weaknesses, the daughter expresses a genuine desire to get the details right and to understand the person who made those choices long ago. “Stories of maternal secrecy are rare,” she points out. “I wanted to know more about this heart. Not the trapped heart I knew growing up. The heart that found a lover.”
Maclear discovered that the man who raised her had affairs too, and she tracked down some of his former mistresses to broaden her knowledge of him posthumously. She deftly weaves in her own brushes with infidelity as well as conversations she had with her de facto dad on the topic before he died. People talk about marriage “like it is something winnable, something we can tame into a fixed and faithful orbit.” He had a different view: “It involves a lot of failing and trying again. Marital love is extreme. It’s stamina. A marriage with complications or doubts is not a fiasco. It is a marriage.”
Even as Maclear was forced to come to grips with her parents’ opaque responses, another question bothered her: “Why? Why did my parents decide to keep carrying this burden?” According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people who feel they must keep something hidden experience a change in perception: distances seem farther, hills steeper, physical tasks more difficult. The author imagines her mother “carrying her secret on her back, like a baby wolf in a cloth onbuhimo.” The heaviness increases with time, “altering her gait, causing her to slouch.” One wonders whether it’s even possible to unload a secret one has nurtured for so long.
Throughout Unearthing, Maclear captures the sense of disorientation with unflinching prose, as when she observes, “To receive a new father so deep into life is a bit like being born again. So, I was a baby. But in caring for my mother, I was also tasked with being very adult.” And she grapples with how her genetic heritage may have unknowingly shaped her: she married a Jewish man without knowing that she’s actually half Ashkenazi herself. “I do not believe in blood memory or the cultural determinism of DNA,” she writes. “I believe we are aftermath.” We exist, in other words, “because somebody else ingeniously struggled, traveled, risked, resisted, labored, created, often defying probability and hairline margins of survival.”
Maclear’s literary attempts to make sense of her unlikely path into being are the most insightful and beautifully wrought I’ve read on the subject. In the end, she finds a shaky sort of peace in the plot holes of her family’s history. She imagines her mother saying, “One day I will have a daughter and I will give her an unfinished story and it will be up to her to decide if it is a void or a gift.” With Unearthing, Maclear has made her confusing, sorrowful journey into a gift for the rest of us.