Mothers and daughters, guilt and anger, holding onto the past or abandoning it completely – these are the themes that course through Naomi K. Lewis’s stellar debut novel. The book, which is based on Lewis’s short story “The Guiding Light,” tells the tale of four generations of women in one family, their relationships with one another, and the history that has forced each of them to adopt coping strategies that tear the family apart.
After witnessing her father’s death as a young girl, Ginny (the third generation) becomes prone to accidents herself, and grows up to be an unlikable, self-absorbed woman who is forever trying to shock her seemingly cold mother, Tamar, with her outlandish behaviour. Ginny’s own daughters, Agatha and Jasmine, don’t seem to mean that much to her, and after a bout of temporary amnesia brought on by a head injury, she realizes that she no longer has any feelings for her children, her husband, or her life in general. She abandons them to start anew as a self-help guru, shilling a theory called “willing amnesia,” whereby subscribers “forget” all of the aspects of their lives that they find burdensome. The effect of her abandonment on her daughters, each of whom blames herself for Ginny’s accident and subsequent desertion, is profound.
Lewis (who grew up in Ottawa, where most of the action takes place) uses Agatha as her primary narrator, but seamlessly shifts from one character’s voice to another’s. In the Jasmine sections, she captures with ease the indignant attitude and expletive-riddled language of a 14-year-old girl. It is only the eldest woman, Oma Esther, who is never given a voice of her own: her story of surviving two years in Auschwitz, where she lost her husband and sister, is relayed by Tamar, though to no less moving effect.
The emotional and psychological action in the novel is so rich and intricate that the reader is carried along through decades of storyline (and often back again) without so much as a hiccup. This is a wonderfully well-rounded story with true-to-life characters, emotions, and situations, making it an impressive first effort by an obviously talented writer.