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Familiar - Book of the Month

by J. Robert Lennon

Elisa Brown is driving back along Interstate 90, coming back from her annual visit to her son's grave, when she notices a crack in the windscreen. As she focuses on it she finds herself slipping into a parallel universe where she is a stone heavier, driving a different car and, she soon discovers, her son is still alive.

So begins a blinder of a story about grief and the terrible responsibility of being a parent. When Elisa returns she finds everything is changed: the house is a different colour; the trees down the drive are ones that were felled years before and, strangest of all, her critical and distant husband, Derek, has cooked for her and greets her with warmth and affection. She feels unable to explain to anyone what has happened and all her efforts to fit in seamlessly to her new life and job are predictably difficult and sometimes very funny.

It is almost as if Elisa has woken from a nightmare in which her son was killed. But Lennon is far too good a writer to let there be any unqualified joy in her 'if only' scenario. The mystery of why both sons are now living on the other side of the US is gradually revealed in excruciatingly painful scenes. The most that she can glean from this alternative world is a modicum of self-awareness and an understanding of the damage that she and Derek caused their children.

Lennon is writing in a strong contemporary tradition of existential mysteries, but where, for example, Ferinc Karinthy (METROPOLE) and Haruki Murakami (1Q84), embed their stories in surreal landscapes, FAMILIAR is grounded in the otherwise absolute ordinariness of Elisa's life. It is Lennon's acute observation and subtle depiction of a middle-American woman and her domestic and familial preoccupations that lend the metaphysical its steely edge. It is a beguiling and in some ways seductive scenario: to be able to see yourself in a life that might have been and, like all very best fiction, the novel reflects and refracts the reader's life, raising many more questions than it answers.

Read our interview with J Robert Lennon.

Published by Serpent's Tail, 224pp.

Clare Chandler

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