Autobiography of Childhood by Sina Queyras
Reviewed by Ryan Porter
Autobiography of Childhood. Coach House Books, 2011.
In her new novel, Autobiography of Childhood, Sina Queyras depicts a large family, each member of which lives simultaneously in the past and present. Through the Combal family, Queyras explores how the echoes of painful family dynamics rarely fade to silence, but rather often reverberate just as loudly in the present as they did in the past. Ostensibly about a group of siblings glimpsed on the day of a sister’s death, the novel is also much more than that. Formally, it is told from the perspective of all five siblings as well as that of their dead father. Yet this is not a novel that tiresomely depicts one event from multiple perspectives, but rather it tunnels into multiple consciousnesses to reveal how the residue of childhood affects individuals differently, which it does with sensitivity and, often, with affecting insight.
Queyras is a poet by trade, and her novel’s language, which she puts to good use exploring the inescapably meandering quality of memory, is both lyrical and fluid. Impressively, Queyras constructs multiple voices, with each character’s thoughts extending the length of a chapter. While the novel is told in the third-person, it’s difficult to identify a narrator distinct from the characters themselves. The characters all are well drawn, but some portraits are sharper than others: Guddy, who has fled her native confines of Canada to the broader cultural expanse of Brooklyn; Therese, the terminally ill central character, who lives out her final days wandering through memory’s screen-show; and Bjarne, who slowly sinks into schizophrenia’s fold as he struggles to keep his equilibrium, even while his mind threatens to totter into an abyss.
Perhaps the most interesting character is the ghost of Jean, the deceased patriarch, who wanders unseen through Vancouver, pausing on a particularly vivid memory of his own childhood while months pass by without his notice. Through Jean, Queyras adds a light touch to an otherwise heavy book. For instance, as memory increasingly takes hold of him, he must tie himself to a park bench to avoid floating away; he is literally carried away by memory.
With some authors, the challenge of tackling multiple consciousnesses would reveal the limitations of the author’s sympathetic imagination. With Queyras, however, all characters are rendered as sympathetic, albeit deeply flawed, individuals. Her characters live two lives simultaneously: their version of the past and the events that unfold in the present. “Childhood is a story,” says Queyras’s narrator, “always reconstructing as we remember” (11). Yet childhood is a story, perhaps even a lens, that colours our perception of the here and now. These narratives can be a crutch for some, particularly Jerry, a somewhat bitter but noble man whose happy memories of his father sustain him through life’s indignation. For others, childhood casts a shadow, something from which characters, like Guddy, have fled. Whatever it may have been, one’s childhood is inescapable, like “tiny bruises, or orchid blossoms burned into the flesh, visible in flashes of joy or rage” (192).
Although memory remains Queyras’s main focus, the author also explores shifting notions of itinerancy and community. In the characters’ pasts, their itinerant life was a fly-by-night existence conducted through necessity. The mother, Adel, would rouse the family in order to “take off in the middle of the night to drive across western Canada, or from one end of British Columbia to the other […] she would steal her neighbour’s pickup when her car was out of commission, she would hire thugs to move her furniture, she would do what it took” (28). In the present, however, the itinerant life signals economic and cultural liberty, not the deprivation and precariousness it once entailed.
Queyras’s book alludes to the shifting importance of place in North-American lives. In his 1993 book, Post-National Arguments, Frank Davey suggests that recent Canadian fiction is set in places as interchangeable as “post-cards”; characters inhabit a placeless, post-national space of indistinguishable locales that are the bland mortar of a grey global modernity. Queyras’s novel, however, suggests that place is becoming more important. For instance, Guddy’s dilemma about what city would best accommodate her desired way of life suggests that place matters: Phoenix is not Philadelphia, which is not Brooklyn, which is not Vancouver, all locales that figure in Guddy’s very contemporary dilemma. These places possess real difference for the characters, yet Queyras also hints at the source of such distinction: developers’ ability to manufacture urban lifestyle ideals that cater to distinct demographics. North-American cities now function as commodities; there are some, like Guddy, who have the ability to move among these branded nodes. Others, however, are confined in space, such as Jerry stuck in his basement apartment and Adel stranded on the social fringes in her trailer. Their very inability to pick up and move along is a reflection of their economic marginalization. While the book is largely about the ineluctability of the past, it also offers a compelling vision of our present.
Ryan Porter lives and teaches in Ottawa. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Queen's University. His dissertation, "'You Can't Get There From Here': Small-Town Ontario, Nostalgia, and Urban Memory in the Works of Selected Ontario Writers," recently won the Queen's English Department's A.C. Hamilton Prize for Outstanding Merit, and his articles and reviews have appeared in a number of journals.