Book Review: The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri

The Family Clause – Jonas Hassen Khemiri (Anansi, 2020) (translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

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.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri”

  1. Ugh, isn’t reviewing a book full of unnamed characters so annoying? I quite often don’t notice it when I’m reading, until I start to write a review and realise I have no idea what the hero was called. Should be a law against it… 😂

    1. It’s a style I normally really dislike. Honestly, as soon as I realized this book did that I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I got past it because overall it was fine, I just don’t see the purpose of it. The story would have been exactly the same if they all had names!

  2. One thing that I enjoy about your blog is that you show us what motherhood looks like without being a “mommy blog,” and so I appreciate what you do with your girls and think of your job as an incredibly important one. You’re raising people who are going to be in the same world as me, and I want them to be the kindest people they can be. If teaching kindness were so easy, we’d all be quite happy right now. It’s tough.

    I have a history with a father and grandfather who each thought they could never be wrong. There was nothing WORSE than being wrong, their thinking seems to go, and anyone who is not like them is a dog dropping in the yard. It was not great to live with. When my grandfather died, my dad stopped that mentality to some degree and is growing as a person. It’s beautiful to watch.

    1. Sometimes I ponder my weird little blog where I write book reviews and post pictures of my kids and wonder what I’m doing! But I just keep in mind that this is for me and it’s for fun and so I share the things I like and I’m glad when others enjoy them too. So thank you!

      Having kids was my choice so I don’t expect society to applaud me for doing the basic tasks of caring for them (as the son in this novel seems to expect) but it is nice when parenting is acknowledged as an important job and one that has an affect on society as a whole. (As you put so well! I’m happy for my taxes to go to paving roads or supplying hospitals that I will never use because these are things that make the lives of others better.)

      Good on your dad for working to change that mentality! That is a hard thing to do and many would not bother. This is a book that does a good job of demonstrating how those patterns grow and continue through generations, even when father and son are very different people.

    2. This is slightly off topic, but I truly wish western countries still had that “it takes a village” mentality when it comes to raising children. Think of all the things we could do if children were cared for, and we felt good about it, a good chunk of time by grandparents, friends, and neighbors.Think about how child care would change, as would children and socializing. It blows my mind.

    3. That is something that would truly change our culture! The things that could be accomplished. The last parenting book I read (Hold on to Your Kids) talked a lot about the concept of the village and how it benefits kids. I see some of that in how a church can function, in the way it brings people of different ages together, but obviously it doesn’t always happen or happen in a productive way. For us, even something as simple as having involved grandparents close by makes a huge difference and that’s something that’s not as common as it once was.

  3. What is with this strange new trend of withholding character names? It annoys me, it seems like such an easy thing to just include, and the reasons for not including it seem trite, or really not obvious. And that man who follows that woman around? Ugh. So typical, and SO ANNOYING.

    1. It’s so unnecessary, isn’t it? And it’s not like they’re supposed to be these Everyman characters. They’re very specific.

      The father following the woman and assuming she’ll sleep with him is supposed to be jarring and fully demonstrates how far his perception is from reality. But also so believable because there are men who do exactly that!

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