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This is no bucolic childhood. Sina Queyras’s Autobiography of Childhood (Coach House Books) is a novel about grief, about anger, about familial obligation and madness and conflict. It is an internal, abstracted construction of family. Told in turn by six members of the Combal family, the narrative revolves around the death of one sister, Therese, but plumes out wider, taking in the panoramic view of western Canada and the Combal family history—which includes the teenage death of their eldest brother and the menacing shadow of their brilliant, manic mother, Adel.
The Combal siblings: Guddy, Jerry, Bjarne, Annie and Therese, and their father, Jean, each narrate one section of the book. These sections build on one another, expand, contract and fracture in a way that creates a cohesive, intriguing story. The language of Autobiography of Childhood is noteworthy—Queryas is a poet, and her fascination with and wise use of language is apparent from the very first page of the novel. There is, throughout, the desire to “fall into” the story, and though the language is conducive and narrative tries, ultimately it never quite lets the reader in. Which seems appropriate for the Combal family—they are an odd bunch, a strange and misfit unit, and despite their distances, geographically and emotionally, they are indelibly tied to one another and unlikely to let outsiders in.
The crux of the story rests on Therese’s impending death from cancer, a disease she has been fighting for many years. The novel opens with Guddy, the youngest sister, racing to fly across the country. Each sibling has their own insular world to deal with, and instead of gathering together to mourn the loss of Therese, they remain apart. It becomes quickly apparent that the siblings have very strained relationships with one another. This may or may not be due to the towering presence of their mother in their lives—Adel is a polarizing figure, brilliant, dynamic, but also abusive, selfish. The Combal siblings’ hatred and worship of their mother spreads out perniciously, affecting every single one of their relationships. We learn all of this as the story proceeds, but it is Guddy and Therese’s relationship that gets the most consideration: their connection is the strongest, even if it is riddled with anger and confusion and words unspoken. Interestingly, both Guddy and Therese are gay.
The other characters—Bjarne, possibly schizophrenic; Jean, narrating from beyond the grave; Jerry, the bitter, down-and-out brother who is almost estranged; Annie, the only sibling left tending to Adel—take turns narrating, relating a childhood that has left them scarred. While it isn’t hard to feel empathy for these characters, they aren’t exactly sympathetic. They create conflict with one another. They think nasty things about one another. They refuse to forgive. There are parts of the book when their apathy, when their inability to change or progress or shed the past, is maddening. In that way, Autobiography of Childhood is unendingly real.
As I read Autobiography of Childhood (and the story reads quickly, rarely losing momentum), I couldn’t help but think about truth and fiction in writing. To call this novel “Autobiography” forces one to look at the story in a certain way: how true, if at all, are the events laid down within? Does the reader take something different away from a story if is fiction or nonfiction? What is truth and what is fiction? In creating a work of fiction, how much does truth matter? Autobiography of Childhood doesn’t seek to answer these questions, nor does it directly pose them anywhere in its narrative. Still, these questions remain when the story is finished.
Autobiography of Childhood
By Sina Queyras
Coach House Books
Hardcover, 9781552452523, 200pp.