Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brittani Sonnenberg's Home Leave

Sonnenberg's 2014 novel Home Leave follows the Kriegstein family from the American South to Hamburg, back to America, to London, Shanghai and Singapore, and back to America again.  It is no surprise from the title that questions of home are fraught (what does it mean to go back to an increasingly foreign "home" when one gets "leave" from a job in an ever more comfortable "abroad" ?).  Sonnenberg's own background as a TCK "raised across three continents" (book jacket) and her expertise as director of third culture workshops make it unsurprising that third culture themes drive the novel.

One certainly sees in this novel: dislocation (there is much moving); loss (death and unresolved grief); disenfranchisement (characters who don't know where they belong in terms of nation and only feel confident of "unquestioned belonging" at the expat  "American Club" (214)); and guilt (most trenchantly over Sophie's death, but also over expatriate privilege: "we think you two are neocolonial alcoholics" college-age TCK children say to their parents, while enjoying a drink with them in the midst of "manicured grounds . . . panting dogs . . . fine silks [and] sweating glasses" somewhere overseas (213)).

One sees TCK lingo in the novel : "I hated how chameleonlike I had become," Elise complains, echoing Pollock and Van Reken's observations.

Sonnenberg clearly articulates how hard "repatriation" is for the college-aged TCK:  While happy "to have our pasts erased.  To be neatly, cleanly American,"  "repatriated global nomads, third culture kids restored to our first culture" are also panicked by their own ignorance of America when asked "our opinions by cute guys and girls who've grown up listening to NPR" (204-205). 

Upon confronting ignorance of America, one choice is to try to go back to where one was raised. However, that will often painfully reveal how hard one had worked to fit in at the expat school, not how much one had been a local: "I had never tried to belong to the city or the country" Leah realizes when she tries to move back to Shanghai on her own after college "all my energies were concentrated on fitting in at the American school" (216).  Moving back to Shanghai merely confirms that Leah is not Chinese: "I was white [and] I'd never learned how to use chopsticks properly" (215).

I am delighted that this novel is also beautiful in its quirks.  For instance, Elise Kriegstein is approached by a bereft boy who presents her a letter intended for his dead mother Liesel Kriegstein: something beautifully unifying happens in the conceit that the dead woman and the live one come together because of a similar name. 

Death (Liesel's, and Sophie's) bring me back to my thoughts about simultaneity and discontinuity.  When Sophie dies, she persists: "because the death will happen in Singapore, its occurrence will be unimaginable anywhere else.  Thus, in the parallel (irrational) universe . . . Sophie never dies" (106).  The girl dies in Singapore, but because the family moves on from there there is no "closure" on the grief, and it can seems as though Sophie's life continues.  Then "Leah's body is in Singapore and Sophie is buried in Indiana but in Leah's mind the two of them flit all over the world, everywhere they've ever lived: Philadelphia, Atlanta, London, Madison, Shanghai, Singapore" (174).

If plot lines in fiction are typically driven by time, one can imagine them as 1,2,3,4,5 etc.  Even if the times are presented out of order as in 2,3,5,4,1, one knows that 4 belongs between 3 and 5 and 1 is the incident which starts the sequence.  In third culture literature, narratives are often sequenced by place: in Home Leave we have Philadelphia, Atlanta, London, Madison, Shanghai, Singapore.   This order is logical to its characters but a reader does not know how to imagine those as a sequence: they aren't a sequence.  They are discrete places and times.  Separate.

 The way Sonnenberg writes about Sophie's death clarifies how they also overlap: Philadelphia, Atlanta, London, Madison, Shanghai, Singapore happen simultaneously.  Sophie lives in all of those places at once.

Even though Leah, who does not die, has different selves, different "films" of herself in China and America (143), I think that both actually play/exist simultaneously.  "Which film--the one taking place in the US or the one taking place in China-- is the real one?" muses Leah (146).  Both are real.  Both exist at the same time.  The American film plays in America while the Chinese one plays in China, at the same time.  Perhaps the film version of ourself that plays in the country (ies) in which we are not physically present never stops playing?  Like Sophie, that other version, those other versions, of ourself persists, still living a life a long way away in an alternate land?

Elise, Leah, Sophie and Chris all get their own voices and their own sections of Home Leave to narrate.  Maybe the fact that this narrative has many voices reflecting on the same thing, many perspectives and points of view on the same events, reveals something about TC Authors like Sonnenberg and their  feeling of having many selves at once?  Perhaps someone with a single national background and identity--Dickens, Thoreau and their ilk--can write an ominiscient narrator.  Muddy the author's identity even a little and one gets slides, slips, transitions between different narrating voices: multiple points of view.  Those multiple points of view come from the author's own fractured perspective and the coexistence, for them, of many different simultaneous selves. 

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