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Nancy Huston: Lignes de faille (Fault Lines)

Sol is one of those obnoxious, precocious children. He seems to know far too much for a six year old. His mother believes that he is going to be a genius but so does he. He is very precious, only eating certain foods, But he is the most recent in a line of six-year olds whose story Huston tells us. We are given the story backwards, that is to say we hear the story of Sol first, set in 2004 and then we go back, hearing the story of his father, Randall, set in 1982, his grandmother, Sadie, in 1962 and, finally, his great-grandmother, known variously as Erra, Kristina, Klarysa and, to Sol, GG (= great-grandmother), in 1944-45. The point of doing the story backwards is twofold. Firstly, there is clearly some secret or, at best, confusion about the origins of the family and, of course, all is revealed in the final section, Erra/Kristina/Klarysa’s section. Secondly, we learn in advance both what they will become and why they did certain things years ago. It is mildly annoying but for Huston to reveal the great secret probably the only way to do it.

The family certainly has something of a burden to bear and not just because of the secret. They are partially Jewish, as Sol’s name implies. Erra/Kristina/Klarysa is not Jewish. Sadie is fathered by a man called Mortimer, who is a beatnik who disappears fairly early on, so we are not fully aware of his antecedents but he probably is not Jewish. However, during Sadie’s story, when she is six, Erra/Kristina/Klarysa marries a Jew called Peter Silbermann who is Jewish and Sadie takes his surname. Sadie marries Aron who is a Jew but not an observant one – he loves bacon and does not like Israel. Sadie, however, decides to become Jewish and the family lives, for a short while, in Haifa and, after the early death of Aron, Sadie settles permanently in Israel. Their son, Randall, is therefore technically Jewish but he marries Tessa, a Catholic and they decide to compromise and become Protestant. Sol, therefore, despite his name is technically not Jewish though, obviously, he has Jewish blood. Complicated? Yes, but Huston is clearly making the point that these interrelationships, both as a result of what happened in World War II and, of course, intermarriages in North America, are not straightforward.

The trouble with telling the story from the perspective of a six-year old is that six-year olds are not necessarily very articulate or knowledgeable about the world. Huston cheats a bit by making all her six-year olds far smarter and more worldly-wise than they have any right to be at that age, while keeping a certain amount of their charm with their ignorance about certain things. But sex is not of the things they seem to be too ignorant about. Sol is, of course, the only child of the Internet and is continually getting an erection by watching violence on the web, sometimes, though not always, sexual violence, such as the Abu Ghraib photos. (Yes, he is an obnoxious child.) Sex is not unknown to the other six-year olds.

Few of the relationships seem happy. Tessa and Randall, Sol’s parents, are always arguing and disagree not only on Sol’s upbringing but on Randall’s grandmother, i.e. Erra/Kristina/Klarysa, whom Tessa dislikes but Randall adores, and other issues. They also disagree when Sadie (Randall’s mother, whom they both dislike) suggests a trip to Germany to investigates Erra/Kristina/Klarysa’s roots. Sadie and her husband are not too happy. She is a university lecturer and an expert on evil, who is doing a thesis on the Lebensborn programme, while Aron is a not very successful playwright who is far less happy in Israel than she is. Erra/Kristina/Klarysa has a series of relationships. Sadie, for example, sees her performing oral sex on a strange man when Erra/Kristina/Klarysa is married to and living with Peter. By the end (i.e. the beginning of the novel), she is living in a lesbian relationship with Mercedes, a Mexican woman.

However, as the title implies, Huston is interested in showing us how the different blood lines work through families and how, despite some basic similarities (for example, Erra/Kristina/Klarysa, Sadie, Randall and Sol, all have a similar birthmark but in different places), the similarities and differences clash. Sadie dislikes her mother, Randall dislikes his. Erra/Kristina/Klarysa is the most successful. She is a famous singer though she sings without words (all is explained in the final segment). None of the others is particularly successful, with Aron a not very successful playwright, Sadie a university lecturer and apparently a world expert on evil though that seems to fade away and Randall a not very successful IT person. There are great hopes placed on Sol (including by himself). In other words, there is no common career strand. But Huston tells her story well and creates a series of complex though related characters, who, like all of us, have their own peculiar foibles, coloured by their somewhat discordant antecedents.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Actes Sud
First published in English 2007 by Text Publishing Company
Translated by the author