by Brittani Sonnenberg
Grand Central Publishing, 259 pages
reviewed by Michelle Fost
Brittani Sonnenberg’s debut novel, Home Leave, unfolds as a lyrical meditation on loss, geographical place, expatriate experience, sibling rivalry, family, and growing up. Sonnenberg writes with clarity about the messiness of the expat Kriegstein family’s lives. To tell her story, Sonnenberg begins the opening section improbably from the point of view of the mother’s childhood home. Yes: we hear from a house. What I liked very much about the novel is that it continued in this way, rough and tumble in its narration, jumping from first person accounts in the voices of the family, third person voices, first person plural voices, and so on. Home Leave has the fitting feel of a kid landing somewhere without concern about fluency but a willingness to tell her story using the language that works.
Sonnenberg captures beautifully what it’s like to grow up as an American abroad, not as a tourist but not fully as a native either. There’s bougainvillea, there’s spitting on the streets, there’s dancing in the public square. There’s always loss and longing—whether it’s for a simple box of Honey Bunches of Oats, the exhaust mixed with the heat of Shanghai, or the familiar candies with pictures of penguins on the wrapper from passport control in Singapore.
During summers the female members of the family go back to the States for home leave. It’s Elise and her daughters Leah and Sophie’s chance to stay connected to America as home. For Leah, the older Kriegstein daughter, though, home turns out to be rooted less in a place than in her family. Her mother, father, and sister are her home. Moves from London to Atlanta to Shanghai are a kind of practice for separating from her family, growing up, becoming an adult. Later, Leah will choose Berlin, a city with a “schizophrenic struggle” that feels comfortable. It’s a city where she can let go of what she is missing.
There are many losses along the way for the Kriegsteins. Their greatest loss is the unexpected death of Sophie on a soccer field at the American school in Singapore. The novel asks, “Was Sophie’s death a foregone conclusion in any geography, a heart failure built into her system that would have struck her down on any continent?” It’s a no-fault death, brought on by a heart condition that had gone undetected.
Dead or alive, Sophie is a strong presence in the novel. In two memorably inventive scenes, the dead Sophie participates in family therapy sessions, written by Sonnenberg in the style of short stage plays. The loss of Sophie is not an isolated event; it’s more the cresting of a wave carrying a family’s losses. Loss of innocence, of trust, of childhood, of place—Sonnenberg calls up many difficult moments of growing up. She sketches in for us traumatic episodes from the family’s past: a great-great grandmother who stumbles on the scene of her own mother in bed with her fiancé; a young girl who tells her mother she is regularly being molested by her grandfather, and is then scolded rather than believed or helped.
If there is a choice of fight or flight, generations of this family choose flight. Sophie, when she resurfaces after death in this story, is a conciliatory presence. Grief gives her a voice. Later in life, the great-great grandmother wonders if, had she stayed in Germany and married her fiancé, all would have worked out fine after all. And an internalized voice in Elise first scolds: “You shouldn’t tell such tales, Elise.” Then, “You’re still dragging that around?…Well, get over it!” It is not that the bad things that happen here are okay, but there is a stance of resignation and acceptance, of mourning and grieving and then leaving one’s grief behind.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in Geist Magazine and The Painted Bride Quarterly. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section.