I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. It is now on sale.
Every six months a family is reunited in Sweden. A father returns from the country where he lives to the country his children live in in order to honour the requirements of his continued citizenship. The father and the son have an agreement that the son will provide the father a place to stay and that he will take care of his father’s business (banking, mail, etc) while the father is in this other country. This is the family clause, if you will.
The story is told from the perspectives of the father, the son, and the daughter, with some short scenes from the perspective of the son’s girlfriend. The primary view we see however is the father’s and the son’s and it is their relationship that is at the core of the story. The daughter, while part of that same immediate family, seems like more of an afterthought and even her individual struggles never seemed well-rounded out. Going back and forth between characters we see their vastly different experiences of the same scenarios. We get to witness just how a moment can be skewed and how these moments build up over time and can splinter a family. We also see how the father’s refusal to recognize his own flaws in any way have damaged both of his children and their various relationships.
The son is also a father, a youngish man on paternity leave with his one-year-old son and four-year-old daughter while his wife works as a lawyer. He loves his family but is deeply unhappy in his role and unsure of his larger place in the world. He wants to stand up to his father but lacks the inner strength to do so effectively. His daily life with two young children is filled with the mundane and the messy. In a lot of ways, as a stay-at-home parent myself, I could sympathize with the experiences of this son who is also a father. The day-to-day care of young children is repetitive and there isn’t a lot of glory in it. This is a character who wants to be applauded for his actions, even ones as simple as changing his son’s diapers. In many ways, I can sympathize with this desire to be recognized by your partner for even the most basic actions. On the other, this character is so unpleasant and unrecognizing of his own privilege and his partner’s work that it’s hard to feel much empathy for him.
Similarly, it’s hard to feel much for the father too though this is perhaps because I never felt like we got up close and personal to him. Even the sections that are seen from his perspective, he never becomes truly vulnerable. Even in his own inner dialogue he is not truly honest with himself. We learn that he split from his wife and young children years ago and was absent from their lives for many years before returning. We learn that he, apparently, sees no harm from that absence and thinks of himself as a good father. He does love his children and grandchildren but doesn’t realize how little his actions show this. He, like his son, insists on blaming everyone else around him for everything that goes wrong. In one scene, he meets a woman who is a tourist and insist on following around, ignoring all of the signs that she does not want his company. When she eventually goes her own way and doesn’t sleep with him (which she never indicated was going to happen) he is outraged, blaming women and Chinese people (she is a Chinese-Canadian) for his inability to get laid. While it does show just how skewed his vision of the world around him is, it also served to put me firmly in the I Don’t Care About This Guy Camp.
This wasn’t a book I loved but there is also a lot of excellent writing and Khemiri does an excellent job of creating characters even while keeping quite a bit back from the reader, including the characters’ names. (Something that usually bothers me more than it did in this book.) Not getting the same perspective from the daughter that we did from the father and the son felt like a missed opportunity and made this family story feel overly male-centric but there is definitely the potential of a very strong novel here.