Some writers who begin their careers writing short fiction have a difficult time transitioning to the broader art of novel construction. The two forms, though seemingly similar, are in fact as distinct from one another as sculpture is from woodworking. While some erstwhile short-fiction writers inflate their novels with extraneous description and unnecessary side-plots, others use their storytelling instincts to their advantage, applying all the nuance and concentrated punch of high-quality short fiction over a longer narrative. When it comes to Amy Jones’s We’re All In This Together, the author has not only written a fantastic first novel, but one that is wholly enriched by her expertise with the shorter form.
Jones’s first book, the collection What Boys Like, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award in 2008, and showcased the author’s wry sense of humour and knack for creating offbeat yet relatable characters. These features are on display once again in We’re All In This Together, a web-like novel that tracks the overlapping crises of the eccentric Parker family during one tumultuous weekend in Ontario’s Thunder Bay.
The novel’s action stems from spirited matriarch Kate Parker’s decision to tumble over Kakabeka Falls in a whisky barrel – a feat that is captured on video and instantly goes viral. Kate, who suffers from dementia, winds up in a coma, sending the rest of the Parkers – each of whom is mired in his or her own problems – into chaos. For all her instability, Kate is the glue that holds the family together, a fact underlined by her husband, Walter: “When Kate isn’t there, the family isn’t a family – it’s just a group of people who happen to be related.”
The novel is told from the close third-person perspective of 10 different characters, some of whom are afforded recurring chapters, others who are allotted only a single chapter apiece. The two most frequently recurring characters are prodigal daughter Finn (Serafina) Parker, who returns to Thunder Bay after a self-imposed exile in Toronto, and real-estate agent Katriina, the wife of Kate and Walter’s adopted son, Shawn, who struggles to hide increasingly troubling instances of self-harm from her husband and kids. These chapters, along with Walter’s and Shawn’s, help drive the narrative forward, while the one-off chapters – belonging to characters such as celebrity marine biologist Adam Pelley, and a geology student named Tanya – not only serve as puzzle pieces that help bridge gaps within the wider narrative, but also read as strong, self-contained stories in their own right.
One of the stand-out single chapters belongs to Finn’s fiery twin sister, Nicki. Nicki (née Veronica) figures prominently throughout the novel, and her chapter wields the linguistic potency of a string of exploding firecrackers. One of the novel’s subplots involves an affair Nicki had with her twin’s then-boyfriend, Dallas – a massive faux pas that resulted in Nicki getting pregnant, and Finn abandoning the family. Nicki’s chapter, however, reveals a new perspective on the affair, transforming her from pseudo-villain into flawed yet sympathetic anti-hero.
One of the novel’s great pleasures, in fact, involves Jones’s gradual delivery of pertinent details that shimmer into focus as the various sections unfold. In the early chapters, for example, Kate is a cipher prone to disappearing – whether she’s falling through ice into Lake Superior, or taking off to Europe – leaving “Waiting Walter” in the lurch. “Loving Kate has been a nebulous thing,” Walter thinks, “like trying to catch vapour in your hand.” It’s not until later chapters, told from Kate’s own perspective, that we learn what happened in Europe, and the quirky woman we have to that point encountered only as an elusive wife or idiosyncratic mother is brought movingly and vibrantly to life.
Kate’s sections are also notable for their portrayal of dementia from the inside. When she wakes up from her coma, she is busted out of the hospital – or “the doctor place,” as Kate calls it – by her 16-year-old granddaughter, London (Nicki’s eldest child), whom she initially recognizes merely as “this girl, this daughter of [her] daughter.” A shark enthusiast and militant animal lover, London convinces her grandmother, whose memories are “slippery as fish in her hands,” to drive her across the border to Duluth, so she can meet Adam Pelley. As grandmother and granddaughter embark on their reckless journey, the rest of the Parkers – marriages collapsing, rivalries erupting – must come together to track them down.
In her exploration of family, and the “many moments that cleave our lives in two,” Jones has created a novel of great psychological insight and a kind of sharp-edged tenderness that revels not in family dysfunction, but in its “beautiful, crazy chaos.”