Survivor’s Guilt

By Chaitali SenAugust 25, 2014

Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

IN MY LIFE as a reader, few literary deaths have been as memorable to me as that of Louisa May Alcott’s Beth March. At the beginning of Little Women, Beth is a shy, sweet, physically inactive and ultimately sickly adolescent of 13 — hardly a dynamic character. Beth lacks Meg’s grace, Jo’s intellect, or Amy’s fiery vanity; perhaps the only remarkable thing about her is that she is fated to die. Her death should not have come as a surprise to me, yet I wasn’t prepared for it. I felt her absence so keenly that my whole experience with the book shifted, turning Little Women into a book not about sisters but a book about loss.

As an adult, decades past my first reading of Little Women, I can’t say exactly what evoked such a strong sense of mourning, whether it was my own fragile adolescent psyche or Alcott’s skillful storytelling, or simply the fact that Beth existed for three-quarters of the book and then ceased to exist. Skimming through the book recently, I came upon another possibility. Though she was never a catalyst of any action and had little to do but set the stage for her own death, Alcott gave her a voice, the voice of someone who could never fully commit to life: “[I]t never was intended I should live long,” she says:

I’m not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but here.

I think what I find moving is that something unexpected in the speech, a bit of self-loathing as well as anger over a future denied.

This summer two debut novels, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Brittani Sonnenberg’s Home Leave, explore the untimely death of a sister and daughter. In each book, the death is revealed early, precipitating an examination of unanswered questions and buried truths. Both ask what happens to the dynamics of a family when one of its children suddenly dies, when the family itself has failed in one of its basic functions. Both books also explore the notion of home. Grief can set even the most grounded families adrift, but when their sense of home and belonging is already tenuous, each member of the family is left abandoned, to grieve alone.

Everything I Never Told You begins with these haunting first lines: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” It is 1977, and Lydia is 16, the biracial daughter of a Chinese American father and white mother in a rural Ohio college town where they are the only mixed-race family. Despite having an older brother who is headed for Harvard, and an affectionate younger sister, we learn quickly that blue-eyed Lydia is the prized child of each of her parents. Her father, James, struggling all his life to fit in with his white peers, takes a certain pride in Lydia’s looks. Because she so resembles her white mother, he thinks Lydia should be able to blend in easily, to be accepted unquestioningly as an American, something he has never achieved himself and that neither his younger daughter Hannah nor his son Nath can offer him. Her mother, Marilyn, has her own hopes for Lydia. As a housewife who once wanted to be a doctor, she wants Lydia to develop her intellectual ambitions and become something more than a wife and mother. To both parents, Lydia seems to be a successful surrogate, eager to take on the burden of their unfulfilled dreams. Yet, when Lydia is found drowned in a nearby lake, it becomes clear neither James nor Marilyn really knew their daughter.

From the moment of Lydia’s death, Ng moves gracefully back and forth in time, into the aftermath of the tragedy as well as the distant past, and into the consciousness of each member of the family, creating a series of mysteries and revelations that lead back to the original question: what happened to Lydia? By the end of the book, the characters have come to their individual epiphanies, understanding more than they did at the beginning, but the question of what happened on the night of Lydia’s disappearance remains answered only for the reader. Ng is masterful in her use of the omniscient narrator, achieving both a historical distance and visceral intimacy with each character’s struggles and failures. These myriad points-of-view document patterns of missed connections and half-communicated needs, layers upon layers of lost opportunities. Even Nath and Lydia, who are close in age and share an understanding of their parents’ shortcomings, cannot seem to break this pattern of missed connections. Nath begins to resent the attention Lydia gets from their parents, attention they have never given to him though he is no less deserving, and Lydia, in spite of her attachment to Nath, is utterly absorbed in her own problems, never really offering Nath the kind of sympathy he needs.

The one who holds the most hope of creating a greater intimacy, the true intimacy for which families surely exist, is little Hannah. Throughout the book, Hannah is rarely spoken to. She is absent for pages at a time, and appears in sudden bursts after being forgotten perhaps by everyone — her parents, her siblings, the narrator, and the reader:

(What about Hannah? They set up her nursery in the bedroom of the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept, and even as she got older, now and then each of them would forget, fleetingly, that she existed — as when Marilyn, laying four plates for dinner one night, did not realize her omission until Hannah reached the table. Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.)

But Hannah does attempt to assert her existence in small ways — sitting under a table near Lydia, sending her “soft and patient thoughts” to help her through a moment of misery, or reaching out to touch her grieving parents and brother, only to pull back when her physical gestures go unnoticed. She also steals, mostly from Lydia’s room, small treasures including a silver necklace and a driver’s manual. All the while, Hannah notices things about Lydia no one else does. She knows Lydia’s smile isn’t genuine, and senses a frightening, escalating crisis. For all her truthful observations, we know Hannah cannot save Lydia, but Hannah coming out of hiding might be the only thing that can save the rest of her family.

On the surface, Ng’s storylines are nothing new. There is a mysterious death, a family pulled apart by misunderstanding and grief, a struggle to fit into the norms of society, yet in the weaving of these threads she creates a work of ambitious complexity. In the end, this novel movingly portrays the burden of difference at a time when difference had no cultural value. Ng accomplishes this with small strokes, in the way, for instance, various characters use the word “Oriental” to refer to James Lee, and broadly to anyone of Chinese descent. Later, it appears in Lydia’s autopsy report, illustrating the subtle yet pervasive role of race in the mystery of Lydia’s death and the family drama that surrounds it.

The Lees' racial struggles are quiet. They are not openly excluded, nor are they the victims of any outrageous hate crimes; they are the exotic other, outsiders whose racial mix is perceived, even subconsciously by the family itself, as a complication. Even James and Marilyn are not aware of how much race complicates their thinking until the police close their investigation, ruling out Lydia’s death as a homicide. Outraged, Marilyn says the police would not have given up if Lydia were white. For James, hearing Marilyn describe their daughter in terms of race confirms his fear that his own wife had been labeling them as “other” all along. In a strange way, Lydia’s death frees the entire family from a great burden. They are perhaps no longer the family marked by racial difference but by something far more relatable to the community in which they live. They are the family who lost a child.

In Brittani Sonnenberg’s Home Leave, Leah and Sophie are sisters who endure their parents’ intrepid lifestyle, following their father’s ever-expanding corporate ventures in Germany, England, China, Singapore, and various parts of the United States. When Sophie dies unexpectedly from a congenital heart condition, the family founders, unsure of how and where to mourn her in their varying states of exile. Sophie’s death is foreshadowed in the first chapter and further revealed throughout the book, each chapter exploring a different aspect of this family’s life before and after the tragedy.

In one chapter, a family therapy session following Sophie’s death is presented as a script for a play. In their dialogue, they talk not so much about Sophie but about places — about England, where Sophie might have felt at home, where they at least had happy memories of Sophie, and Singapore, where Sophie died. Their mother, Elise, says, “I think leaving Singapore would feel like leaving Sophie behind, losing her even more.” Elise always wanted to stay in Shanghai, weeping so bitterly upon leaving that her husband had to sedate her with anti-anxiety pills and booze. Clearly, Elise blames her husband for forcing the move and creating the conditions that lead to her daughter’s death, even while she knows Sophie was born with her condition, and could have — would have — died anywhere. It only happened to be Singapore. There is no question this family will continue to move, but now they will always be leaving Sophie behind, and as a family they will continue to splinter.

As in Ng’s book, the child that that has died seems to be the favored one in the family, complicating a surviving sibling’s grief with feelings of guilt and envy.

It was a mistake, Leah knows. She was the one who should have died. Leah with her stumbling hesitation, her heavy thinking, her uncertain smile. She was always nearer to death than Sophie, who was not afraid of other people or of living, like Leah was. The worst part: before her death, Leah was sick of Sophie. Her perfection, her lithe body, her effortlessness. Leah wanted her gone and then she was.

Everywhere they go, Sophie thrives and Leah waits awkwardly in the shadows. Even in Shanghai, where Sophie can’t escape a constant barrage of comments about her blond hair, and even in Atlanta, where Leah should feel more at home, younger sister Sophie is always living, Leah always watching. Partly this is adolescence, painful under the best of circumstances but compounded by the reality of foreignness. Sophie will never experience that unique pain, because Sophie never reaches her adolescence.

Years later, the adult Leah settles in Berlin, looking for a way to “stay put.” Staying put means finding a home, but it also means putting her sister to rest, thousands of miles from the scene of her death, allowing the place Leah inhabits now to be her home instead of her endless grief. In Berlin, Leah says, “The grief and guilt of surviving Sophie were all around me — in every sad-eyed statue, empty church, crippled Jewish graveyard, awkward silence.” In a way, it is the perfect place for her to let go. She falls in love, plans a wedding, and begins again, seizing another chance to create an emotionally fulfilling family life. There is an underlying sense that Leah and her parents have failed as a family. Though her parents have stayed married, and Leah maintains a long-distance relationship with them, Sophie’s death never creates a stronger unit. They never help each other reach greater levels of emotional truth or intimacy. They simply go on existing, three islands in a vast ocean of grief.

The premise of the novel — two sisters in an expatriate family, separated by tragedy — is autobiographical. Sonnenberg’s own sister died young, and she also spent much of her upbringing living abroad. It makes sense, then, that many of these chapters feel like a deflection from the emotional heart of the story. The chapters vary wildly in style, voice, structure, even genre, somehow mimicking a feeling of constant relocation, tracking the movements of a family that can’t quite seem to find their footing. In a way, it is the stylistic opposite of Little Women, which had the 19th-century sensibility of staying firmly fixed in place and time, with its doggedly linear chronology. In Home Leave, the various narrative techniques are distancing, often distracting. It is as if we are circling around an unbearable pain, led by an authorial voice that is still finding its way through the fog of grief, searching for a way to tell a story that is too difficult to tell. There is no novelistic arc here, no climax, no catharsis. Grief is all there is.

Sonnenberg cites as one of her influences Jennifer Egan, whose 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad was called “a collection of de-linked short stories, almost all of them triumphs of technical bravado and tender sympathy” (Ron Charles, Washington Post, June 16, 2010). There is plenty of technical bravado and tender sympathy in Home Leave, but perhaps not the sense of shared, devastating grief some readers might crave. I wanted Leah’s grief to become my own, but her life with Sophie as it is presented, in so many disjointed fragments, made it difficult to understand what was lost. Unlike Lydia Lee, or even Beth March, Sophie’s presence never fully takes hold. She never quite comes to life. This is perhaps a realistic depiction of loss. Anyone who has mourned the death of a loved one knows how tenuous our memories can be, how quickly someone who was once so real can become an abstraction. But such a faithful depiction of reality is not necessarily the goal of fiction, and therein lies the risk of writing the postmodern novel; the story can become an intellectual exercise, something to be puzzled out rather than felt.

Still, both Sonnenberg and Ng have written compelling debuts, presenting two unforgettable families stumbling along with their relentless humanity, surviving. Both novels reveal a dialectical truth about families; they are places of joyous hope, and also crushing loneliness.


Chaitali Sen is a writer and teacher in Austin, Texas.

LARB Contributor

Chaitali Sen is a writer and teacher in Austin, Texas. Her short stories have been published by Colorado Review, New England Review, Juked, Kartika Review, Better: Culture and Lit, and other literary journals. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. 


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