Wiebe’s new novel a powerful journey through memory, grief
RUDY Wiebe is widely known for his Governor General’s award-winning historical fiction as well as his bestselling memoir, Of This Earth. His latest, the short novel Come Back, is less ambitious in scope than many of his works, but remains an intense emotional and spiritual journey through memory and grief. Hal Wiens is a retired professor in Edmonton, 75 years old and recently widowed. He gets through the days with the help of well-established routines, and hasn’t changed a thing in the house since his wife died. He’s sitting in his accustomed chair in the coffee shop, where he meets his Dene friend Owl nearly every morning, when he sees a young man in an orange down-filled jacket walk past. The man looks just like his older son Gabriel, but that’s impossible: Gabriel killed himself 25 years ago. The sight affects Hal viscerally. He runs out the door and into traffic in pursuit of the orange jacket, heedless of the traffic accident he causes. At home afterwards he recognizes how foolish and how inevitable his action was: “Why in God’s name. How could he not.” That brief incident rips open a wound, bringing back memories he’d worked very hard to shut out. Hal feels compelled to re-read Gabe’s notebooks and diaries, all filed away in a box in the basement, to face the record of events that led to his son’s death. A large part of what follows comprises excerpts from Gabe’s writings, interspersed with Hal’s voice corroborating and questioning. The young man’s voice is almost too much to bear, partly because it treads the same ground over and over, but also because it’s so convincing. As Gabe interprets events, examines his emotions, and details his obsessions, we see a young man trapped within himself, distanced from those he loves and unable to live fully in the world. The very things Gabe was attracted to — film, music, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke — were the most damaging, drawing him ever more into himself and feeding his sense of aloneness. One particular obsession proves Gabe’s undoing: his potent longing for Ailsa, the barely-adolescent daughter of some family friends. Their interactions — a few words, a hand’s touch — are few and brief, but they’re enough to haunt Gabe. Convinced she can somehow save him, yet compelled to keep his distance, he sinks into despair. The juxtaposition of his voice with Hal’s underlines how complex a life is, and how impossible to completely comprehend. While Gabriel’s suicide is no mystery, the hardest questions remain unanswered: Why could he not break out of his “motionless life?” Why, when he was apparently so inert, was he able to plan and carry out his own death? The characters’ voices also demonstrate just how difficult it is to talk about the things that affect us most deeply. Gabe’s diary entries constantly break off and re-start; Hal’s phone calls with his children Dennis and Miriam are jerky, hesitant, even evasive. Powerful, at times lyrical, Come Back gives voice to the depth of familial love and the strength of the human desire for answers in the face of inconsolable loss. Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg poet and reviewer. Her first poetry collection will be published
by Turnstone Press in 2015.
The contrast in voices between father and son is complex in Rudy Wiebe’s latest.