Fam­ily frag­ments

Wiebe’s new novel a pow­er­ful jour­ney through mem­ory, grief

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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.

Come Back

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