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Genealogical cracks and earthquakes.

March 8, 2011 10 comments

Lignes de faille, by Nancy Huston. (475 pages) English version : Fault Lines.

 In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement. Large faults within the Earth’s crust result from the action of tectonic forces. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes, such as occurs on the San Andreas Fault, California. A fault line is the surface trace of a fault, the line of intersection between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface. (Wikipedia)

Fault Lines opens with a genealogical tree and includes four parts:

I) Sol 2004

II) Randall 1982 – Sol’s father

III) Sadie 1962 – Randall’s mother

IV) Kristina 1944-1945 – Sadie’s mother

Each section of the book is narrated by a child of the tree and relates the formative events that happened to them in the summer between their 6th and 7th birthday. Each had to face a tough moment and a change of life, a fresh start in a new place. I won’t tell about the events, to avoid spoilers.

Each time, war was part of the environment, distant or close, with particular massacres. For Sol, it’s the war in Iraq and the torture at the prison in Abu Graib, for Randall, the Lebanese Civil War and the Sabra and Chatila Massacre, for Sadie the Cold War and the 1962 Cuba crisis and for Kristina, WWII, the destruction of Dresden and the defeat of Germany.

Each of them has a specific beauty mole. Sol has it in the neck, Randall on his shoulder, Sadie on her left buttock and Kristina inside her elbow. They all have a particular relationship with it, either a talisman or a curse.

We gradually understand the family history, as Sol talks about all the members, his father, his grand-mother and great-grand mother. Randall has his own view of the relationship between his parents and gives us hints on Sadie’s temper and obsessions. Sadie adores her mother and let us have a glimpse at Kristina’s life in her twenties.

Sol is a disturbing child. Forget about the image of purity, innocence and kindness. Huston makes of him a nasty unbalanced boy. He made me feel ill at ease, I thought, “this is a future executioner, a future terrorist, a root of extremism, whatever extremism it is, religious or political.” Is that what Nancy Huston wanted to tell? How terrorists grow up? Where they come from?

Je vais commencer l’école cet automne et j’ai l’intention de tout écouter, de tout enregistrer et obtenir des notes brillantes mais en gardant un profil bas ; pour l’instant les autres ne doivent pas savoir que je suis le roi, Soleil unique et Fils unique, Fils de Google et de Dieu, Fils immortel et omnipotent de la Toile. WWW à l’envers c’est MMM : à part Ma Mère Miraculeuse, à qui j’en ai donné des aperçus, personne ne soupçonne la brillance, le rayonnement, la fabuleuse radiation de mon cerveau qui, un jour, va transformer et sauver l’univers. I’ll be starting real school in the fall and I intend to listen to everything, record everything and get sterling grades while still keeping a low profile; for the time being I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web. WWW turned down is MMM: apart from My Miraculous Mother to whom I’ve allowed brief glimpses, no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe. (Nancy Huston)

Creepy, isn’t it? Sol believes it, it’s not just a boy dreaming about being superman.

I liked Randall a lot, a little boy, living with a dysfunctional couple and feeling guilty, not enough. 

Ce n’est pas que tes parents ne t’aiment pas comme tu es, c’est juste que quand on est petit on a beaucoup de choses à apprendre et on se dit que plus on apprend, plus ils vont t’aimer, et peut-être que le jour où on reviendra avec un diplôme universitaire on n’aura plus de souci à se faire. It’s not that you parents don’t love you the way you are, it’s just that when you’re little, you have many things to learn and you think that the more you learn the more they’ll love you and maybe the day you come back with a degree, you’ll be off the hook. (my translation)

I pitied Sadie, a little fat, self-conscious and who craves her mother’s love. She thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s absence:

Si j’étais vraiment une petite fille sage au lieu de seulement faire semblant, j’habiterais avec ma mère et mon père comme tout le monde. If I really were a quiet little girl instead of just pretending, I’d live with my mother and my father like everyone else. (my translation)

As for Kristina, her stolen identity will be her DNA as her wordless songs.

In these children’s lives, the men are absent (Sadie’s father, Kristina’s fathers) or relaxed, funny and involved in the education of the child. (Randall for Sol, Aron for Randall, Peter for Sadie). The mothers default their children, except for Tessa, Sol’s mother. But then Tessa is the exact opposite of Sadie: she’s a stay-at-home mother, devoting her whole life to Sol and thoroughly implementing modern methods of growing up children. But ironically, Sol who lives in the most stable environment sounds the most unbalanced of all the children talking here.

 Each generation has to deal with the burden left by the former generation. Several images float through my head. Events bouncing on lives like an uncontrollable wild ball. A doctor unfolding bleeding lives until he reaches the original cause of all the following pains.

Re-read the definition of a fault line at the beginning of this post. This book is full of genealogical fault lines, cracks in souls that create disasters in lives. It is also full of moves linked to these fault lines (Sadie’s researching her mother’s past, for example) that end up in earthquakes for other members of the family. 

Fault Lines is a marvellous book, haunting and masterly crafted. Nancy Huston left clues everywhere to let the reader collect the information and create their own mental picture of the family. Events click together, completing the puzzle in the end.

I’m not particularly fond of books with children as narrators. But here, using children as narrators is powerful, they have a limited knowledge of the world, mix words and come to their own explanation of situations. For example, Sadie innocently says her mother got pregnant from a beatnik named Mort and with whom she used to “play music, drink wine and smoke kerouac” They candidly depict situations and the adult reader reads between the lines. — Are the children’s words another kind of “fault lines”?

I included the covers of the French and American editions. I prefer the French one, the American one focuses on Kristina, the origin of the family and gives a wrong image of the novel. This is NOT a misery book. It is a book about guilt, about responsibility of adults toward children, about secrets and lies and about inherited grief.

Lignes de faille won the Prix Femina in 2006, a well-deserved prize. I found another review at the Guardian, but I think it reveals a lot about the plot. This one by another blogger, Another Cookie Crumble is interesting.

PS : Of course, I’ve read the French version. I translated most of the quotes but Nancy Huston’s version will unequivocally be superior.

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