Reviewed by Gediminas Dainius
Detachment. Freehand Books, 2014.
Maurice Mierau’s Detachment is a memoir that follows Maurice and his wife, Betsy, as they adopt and begin to raise Peter and Bohdan, two young boys from Ukraine. Difficulties begin in Ukraine, where unorganized associates impede the adoption process, and continue back home in Winnipeg, where the new family must adjust to a very different state of affairs. The boys, particularly the older child, Peter, must come to terms with feelings of abandonment and learn to depend on their new parents. Maurice, for his part, struggles to express his emotions towards his children, hoping to understand these feelings by reflecting on his own father’s emotional distance and the traumatic experiences he suffered as a boy in Ukraine. The text provides a raw and compelling treatment of the author’s experiences as a father and a son that makes a larger statement about the frustratingly inaccessible nature of individual minds, including one's own.
Mierau uses the writing of his memoir as a way of coming to understand his sense of disconnection from his sons and its relation to his father’s inexpressiveness. In fact, the creative rendition of the adoption experience conveys how art becomes an outlet for emotions that cannot otherwise be expressed: “These were things I couldn’t talk about, although I tried to in my poems, the same way my father had with his violin, and Jeremy did with his band” (126). The memoir is of course an extremely personal genre, but the overly evident reason behind the whole work is one of its weaknesses, if only a small one. In this vein, the author’s placement of narrative over the events feels somewhat disingenuous and at odds with the heartfelt content of the work.
Mierau’s text features generally unadorned prose that makes for quick reading and coheres well with what appears to be a sincere consideration of the author’s innermost thoughts and feelings concerning parenthood. He openly exposes whatever dark thoughts come to him in moments of frustration and willingly offers ideas that even he does not fully comprehend. It is refreshing to see such potentially jarring elements presented so naturally. Indeed, one of the memoir's greatest strengths is that it avoids excess sentimentality and carefully crafted symbolism. For example, when Peter is found to be tampering with his bike’s brakes, the narrator observes, “I supposed that at the symbolic level that damn brake stood for something else that was bothering him, some private pain he couldn’t express. Or he was just feeling pissy” (197). Mierau is aware that although his narrative helps clarify his own emotions, absolute certainty about numerous events and the interior state of characters, his own included, remains obstinately elusive.
The weak characterization of some figures involved becomes a bit of a problem, but an understandable one. Detachment is a memoir and not a piece of fiction, so Mierau does not have the freedom to enter a character’s mind at will, and although he tries to piece together some characters’ mental states, he draws few conclusions. Because the text is mostly concerned with the author’s adopted sons, the image of Betsy in particular remains fairly superficial; her characterization rests almost exclusively on her role as a mother. For instance, when Betsy's mother, Molly, dies, the reader is told little about their relationship or Betsy's reaction to the death beyond her “want[ing] to be the kind of mother Molly had been to her” (111).
It is best not to dwell on these issues; they do little to hinder the reader’s ability to enjoy the narrative or to consider the psychological depth that the text can only graze. Detachment is unlikely to provoke long-lasting thought or discussion, but its simple style and undeniably human content make it a page-turner, and well worth the read.
Gediminas Dainius holds a BA in Honours English and Creative Writing and an MA in English from Concordia University. His research interests include violent masculinity and the perseverance of the frontier myth in contemporary American fiction.
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