Claremont, by filmmaker turned novelist Wiebke von Carolsfeld, is a novel about the emotionally messy Michajelovich family, all of whom come with their own baggage and their own techniques for lugging it through life. We are introduced to the family under tragic circumstances: the young protagonist, Tom, watches uncomprehendingly as his mother, Mona, is murdered by his father, who then takes his own life. Following this act of domestic terror, Mona’s siblings are left to pick up the pieces and care for the traumatized – and now non-verbal – Tom. Uncle Will is the youngest and flakiest. Aunt Rose is impulsive and chaotic. Aunt Sonya, the eldest and a kind of surrogate mother to her siblings and Tom, is forced to shoulder most of the burden herself.
Sonya wants to be seen as perfect, in possession of a good, bland suburban life, but she feels it is incomplete without biological children of her own. This characterization reads as an unimaginative female trope we have seen too many times before. When Sonya is unable to reach Tom in his darkest moments, she views this as another example of how her maternal instincts have failed her. She is finally forced to ask Rose to take Tom into her messy house on Claremont Street in Toronto. Rose’s slovenly abode, replete with rotting fruit and dirty dishes, is juxtaposed with Sonya’s pristine and ordered home. The bitter sisters represent a dichotomy between the urban and the suburban – each, the novel implies, can be dysfunctional in different ways.
While some of von Carolsfeld’s characters are vivid, their complex dynamics lack depth and could have benefited from a more robust plot. The author attempts to inject some drama via a subplot involving child services threatening to put Tom in foster care, but this fizzles out. Mona’s absence is acutely felt throughout the novel, which shifts perspectives frequently and only presents the deceased matriarch through the eyes of her traumatized son and certain clichés of abused women. As a result, Mona – who is so central to the story – never feels fully realized. As for the other characters, their interior voices are sometimes stilted, leaning more toward explaining than revealing themselves. Notwithstanding the inclusion of expository detail, the family portrait still rings true, if a little dull. Overall, von Carolsfeld has crafted a passable story about a family coming together in darkness and fighting toward the light.