Autobiography of Childhood is the first novel by acclaimed Montreal poet and critic Sina Queyras. Unfolding over the course of a single day, the novel follows the five surviving siblings of the Combral family as they confront the tragedies that overshadow their lives. Most pressingly, Therese is losing a long battle with cancer, something each of her brothers and sisters must come to terms with.
Each chapter focuses on a different sibling. Guddy, who lives in Brooklyn, is closest emotionally to her sister but lives the farthest away. She flies to Vancouver to be with Therese, leaving her partner behind to contend with several minor catastrophes of her own. Guddy is greeted by her brother Jerry, who is caught up in financial and familial frustrations, including his son’s involvement in a real-estate scam. Their sister Annie holds down a job at a group home and cares for Adel, their ailing, antagonistic mother. Annie and Adel live together in a trailer home that Adel despises. Annie’s brother Bjarne, who suffers from mental illness, occasionally stops by to visit his mother and pilfer her medication.
The siblings’ disadvantaged childhoods, and most particularly the death of their brother, Joe, form the background for their present turmoil. Other focal points of their childhood memories involve their violent father, their emotionally erratic mother, and the family’s journeys across the Canadian West in search of employment and stability.
Queyras convincingly renders the individual consciousness of each character in evocative, lyrical prose. Each sibling has taken a different path, none of which seems to have led to contentment. The result is a novel that is decidedly bleak. Though there are moments of tenderness, compassion, and humour, they are insufficient to counterbalance the family’s cumulative unhappiness.
The final section, which belongs to Therese, is the most moving. Therese’s reckoning with her own mortality is affecting, but so much suffering has been endured already that readers may well find themselves emotionally exhausted before reaching the conclusion.