I love being a part of the Shadow Giller Jury (headed by KevinfromCanada, who is writing up a lot more than me here). It’s one of the best things that has come from my blogging. This will mark my . . . fifth year? Holy cow, time flies. So, with yesterday’s announcement of the shortlist, my work begins now: Dennis Bock’s third novel, Going Home Again (2013).

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

I won’t be coy. I didn’t like this book, despite the fact that it treads on one of my favorite themes: memories of the past, especially those we hoped we’d forgotten, haunt the present.

When the book begins, Charlie Bellerose, our first-person narrator, has just learned that someone with a strange name is dead, and Charlie’s brother is missing. We then quickly flash back one year, to the summer of 2005, and find Charlie returning to his home in Toronto. He’s just separated from his wife, Isabel, and left her in Madrid where they’d lived for nearly two decades. With that separation, he’s also left his twelve-year-old daughter, Ava. And so, here he is, returning home again, to a life he’d been able to forget mostly, since he was so far from it.

In Toronto he is nervous to reacquaint himself with his brother, Nate. The last time he spend any time with Nate was over ten years ago, in 1993, when Nate visited Madrid and made a complete idiot of himself. Wary, Charlie is surprised to find that he likes his brother, who is also going through a divorce, one that separates a family with two boys.

I will say that I was already having a hard time with this book at this early stage, and it may well have been an issue of timing. I was very impatient with it from the get-go, finding the dialogue strained first, and then getting annoyed because I felt I could see Bock’s manipulations all over the place as he put the pieces of his story into place. The book comes off as a series of set pieces, and most are misfires since they attempt to add some intensity and metaphor to the story but then Bock balks just as those set pieces begin to take over the story. Consequently, the intensity is undercut, the themes suffer in the background, and the novel feels uneven and unsure.

As an example, the book’s first sentence brings up a man’s death and the brother’s disappearance. Then we step back a year (and then step back further years), and that first sentence is only resolved in the long epilogue. For me, then, the only reason to bring up the death and disappearance was to get the reader hooked. “Ah, the reader’s involved, now I’ll tell my story.” It’s the first of many aspects that just felt contrived.

Which is really too bad. The book itself has some great ideas centered around a man’s return home after nearly two decades. As he revisits those he thought he forgot — like his first love — it all comes back as if it were yesterday, and he’s incredibly disoriented:

But my first year as a bachelor in two decades was just coming to a close, and now like magic, as if time had snapped its fingers, it came to me that I was in the middle of a life I hadn’t really paid attention to. My old self was buried in the irretrievable past, the world had continued, and suddenly my baby daughter was a teenager.

That’s a great thought — finding oneself in the middle of a life one isn’t paying attention to — and it’s sadly one of the more succinct, focused statements in the book, which is otherwise filled with abstractions and forced, tonally mismatched metaphors:

Too many of life’s lessons were hidden away somewhere in the past like a forgotten stash of unopened Christmas presents moldering away in a dark closet, no good to anyone.

Also forced are the book’s lessons that do surface, coming as they do from the mouth of Ava, the wise child in a world of deranged adults. Perhaps that’s the main lesson: when you’re a child, you’re wise; when you’re an adult, you’re foolish; if only you could go back and regain that wisdom. Sadly, this book does not lead the way.

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