A review of Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Homesick opens with a tornado warning. In their family home in Oklahoma, sisters Amy and Zoe shelter in the pantry, nestled among supplies with a torch and selected toys, waiting until the storm has passed and their parents come to fetch them. The girls do this so often, hunkering down in the dark, that Amy comes to view it as a time of safety, lulled towards sleep in the same way she is in the back of the car. Not only does she look forward to tornado warnings, she ‘would rather just not get there … would like it if the warning never expired’. But expire it does, inevitably, allowing the world to crash back in – a world deemed safe again, but which turns out to hold far greater storms.
In this, her second novel, a work grounded in memoir and part of a multilingual project that also incorporates photography, award-winning author and translator Jennifer Croft charts the childhood and coming of age of two sisters, creating an intimate and extraordinarily moving portrait of what it is to have a sibling, a person at once separate from and integral to oneself. Amy, the elder by three years, often seems to outshine her sister – pretty, intelligent, fiercely protective, bossy in the way only an older sibling can be, but also deeply attuned to Zoe’s moods and needs, herself unable to function properly unless as part of their duo. When Zoe falls ill with what will prove to be a brain tumour, beginning a long and dramatic series of hospitalisations, it is just the first of many violent upheavals that will wreak havoc on the girls’ lives. Yet while so much of what happens in Homesick is intensely painful, the novel is sustained by Amy’s abiding love for her sister, a complex bond that transcends rivalry, distance, even language itself – the tool that both unites and divides them.
Written by a polyglot translator, it is unsurprising that this novel should be so concerned with language, and Croft certainly uses it to stunning effect. Every word seems carefully chosen – from the sentence-long headings that precede each chapter, many landing with the force of a small hurricane as they reveal what is about to happen, to the potent metaphors, such as storm and shelter, to which Croft repeatedly circles back – yet, at the same time, there seems to be a piece missing, an absence that cannot be filled with words. Here, we have recourse to the visual: Amy spends her life photographing seemingly random objects and scenes, only in adulthood realising that each snapshot represents some aspect of Zoe. Though described to us in words (in this unillustrated version of Homesick, at least) her photographs ask questions about what memories are, how we understand and visualise the essence of a person, and where language and the physical world collide.
After the storms that buffet their childhood – chiefly sickness and suicide, disasters for which their hyper-vigilant mother has somehow failed to prepare them – Amy and Zoe are driven apart by a wedge not entirely of their own making. A so-called ‘wonderkid’ home-schooled for many years thanks to her sister’s illness, Amy matriculates to the University of Tulsa aged just fifteen, finding herself suddenly thrust into an adult world for which she is emotionally underequipped. At the same time, her parents and Zoe move state, and ‘as they evacuate the home that carried them through childhood … Amy becomes aware for the first time of having had a family.’ Though perhaps not to quite the same degree, this is a feeling with which many readers may be familiar – that of looking back suddenly from what seems a great distance to realise that childhood is now far behind.
For all the many instances of heartbreak – some quiet, like this, some extremely raw – there are, too, moments of pure, electric joy. Croft has a gift for picking out small but telling actions, everyday absurdities, lines of punchy dialogue that get right to the heart of a person or relationship. Though Zoe is only ever seen through the lens of Amy, she is a vivid, solid personality throughout the novel; likewise their parents and grandparents, Russian tutor Sasha, the small handful of friends Amy collects at college. Pivotal events, though sometimes looked at obliquely, are fixed to the page with pinpoint clarity, and it is this extraordinary attention to detail that makes Homesick so hard to put down. Once sucked into the maelstrom of Amy’s life, we cannot help but feel compelled to find out what happens.
Here again, Croft employs an effective narrative technique which, while necessary, gives rise perhaps to the only sense of disappointment associated with the novel: as Amy grows up and is released into adulthood, afforded new freedoms by the opportunity to travel and learn other languages, the pace speeds up remarkably, whisking us along towards the close. It is how time feels, of course, as we get older, and it leaves us with an appropriately resounding sense of loss – for the characters whose lives we have been privy to, the innocence of childhood, the places we too might once have called home. Loss – a sense of homesickness, even – is immensely important to the novel, yet still it feels a little off-kilter, a shame that the narrative couldn’t have lingered.
Before the bittersweetness inherent in the ending and its final photo, Croft does offer us a redemptive return to the imagery with which Homesick opens. In a long-overdue letter to her sister, Amy finally finds the words she needs to describe their relationship: ‘Above all we are the shelter we seek out in others and the safe havens we become for those we choose to love.’ The storms of life have been violent, tossing Amy and Zoe from the darkness of the pantry to opposite ends of the earth. But, still, they have words, and they have pictures – the myriad ordinary, beautiful moments that can sew two siblings’ lives together in a weathered yet unbreakable bond.
Homesick by Jennifer Croft is published in the UK by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.