Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: Absent by Sherri Vanderveen

"Do you have any idea what happens to a family when someone disappears just like that" (pg. 267)?


Absent by Sherri Vanderveen
Penguin Book Canada, 3 February 2009
288 Pages
Contemporary Fiction
5 Stars
Amazon; Barnes and Noble; Goodreads


In 1979, Otto Sinclair flees in the wake of a tragic fire, leaving his family to sort through the ashes. Twenty-eight years later, he comes back to them: his wife Lenore, a kept woman in mourning with a box of memories in the trunk of her car; his daughter Ruby, who peoples her world with the imaginary and the unattainable; his son Gavin, confined in a prison of his own creation; and the ghost of his mother, dead on the third floor of the house he burned down.
A single act of desperation can echo for decades. Now, a wounded family struggles to answer one final question: is it possible to forgive when it's impossible to forget?


Some books you don't finish after you've read the last page.  No, some books continue to occupy your thought life days, weeks after you've read them.  The characters follow you around.  The descriptions filter how you see the world.  The themes make you wonder about yourself and those you know.

That is how Absent by Sherri Vanderveen affected me.  It crawled into my heart and flexed.

The central story is of a father, Otto Sinclair, a passive aggressive, emotionally immature man who decides to abandon his wife, Lenore, and their two children, Ruby and Gavin. Rather than getting a divorce, Otto sets fire to their house and disappears.  Years later, after the children are into their thirties, he decides to go back and see what happened to his family.

The point of view switches between the different characters, letting each reveal how Otto's absence has changed the key their life is played in.  Their stories are not told consecutively, either, as the setting slips back and forth in time, telling the story of Otto and Lenore's marriage, as well as Ruby and Gavin's younger years.

While Otto's withdrawal from their family is the main foundation of the story, this is also a tale of multi-generational abandonment.  Both Otto and Lenore's family backgrounds are explored, with his mother, Elsa, a key figure in the unfolding of his character.

Vanderveen crafted a truly beautiful story.  Even though it skips about in time and perspective, it isn't difficult to follow, and each perspective change is perfectly placed, never interrupting the overall flow, only enhancing it.  Each flashback, even if seemingly unconnected at first, reveals more of the motivations and thinking of each character's present.

With each turn of the page, Absent peels back another layer until you are left with the broken, flawed but vulnerable and genuine heart of what could be almost any family in America today.  Coming from a broken family, I connected to this on a deeply personal level.  I saw my family in the Sinclairs.  I saw myself in the children.  And it spoke to me of things that I either had denied, forgotten, or not realized in a true way.  Vanderveen didn't seek to condemn or exhort or heal; no, she just allowed us to explore this family the way one would a museum, letting certain pieces speak to us, disarm us, challenge us, or bore us before we continue on.

I felt so much ambivalence while getting to know the characters.  Because she developed them so fully and made them complex, gave them hearts and brains and skin, I  couldn't really dislike any character.  I understood their motives too well.  Moreover, I couldn't idolize any either.  I saw their flaws too clearly.  Characters that could have been demonized, like Otto, became pitiable.  Lenore could have been so righteous, but she was shown as guilty.  How true to real life.

Ruby is the character I identified the most strongly with.  The oldest child and only daughter, the effect of an absent father is very subtly seen in her.  Instead of explicitly stating each of her daddy issues, I had to listen to her, look at her, to see the gaps in her armor.  Not only did this make for more attentive, active reading, but it's also more genuine.  Most women whose lives have been built on a single-parent foundation do not go about with their issues in neon lights.  Rather, we bury them deep inside of ourselves, and then build up an armory of defenses.  And that is exactly what I saw in Ruby.  Deep hurt and high walls.

Eventually, however, she is forced to face the very thing that coloured every day since the day Otto left: her abandonment.  And the moment she does is so layered with vulnerability, emotion, reality, and healing that it made me weep.

The other character that I felt very strongly about was Barrett, the man Lenore builds a life with after Otto leaves.  While they never marry, he is effectively the step-father.  Though his relationship with Lenore was morally questionable, it carried so much beauty.  But it's really the way Gavin and Ruby relate to him that I found arresting.  He made me think about step-fathers in general and how many of them are undervalued and unappreciated by their step-children, especially in families where the biological father is gone.  I felt grateful for Barrett's presence in their lives, despite his mistakes, and was upset that they didn't see him the way I did.

Not only is the story compelling and moving, but the writing style is rich without being overwhelming.  The attention to the smallest detail impacted me so much.  Vanderveen was able to make the way that condensation on a glass spills onto the hand that is holding it sound like poetry.  Her description of scenery took me to the city, to the lake, to a gorgeous house and an unfinished basement.  Reading became equivalent to looking at a picture.  She paints with words.

Out of all the books I've read so far this year (all 45 of them), this has been the best.  I predict that it will end up being the best book I read all year.  I give it a resounding 5 stars.  If you like contemporary adult fiction that explores family dynamics, I highly recommend this to you.