A wedding. A cancer scare. A difficult goodbye. An epic plunge over a waterfall. But is it the big moments that make up a family? Or is it the quiet conversations on the front porch over a hand of cards, playing Star Wars in the backyard, the mundane arguments, the shared meals and baseball games and cups of tea with a shot of whisky? He doesn’t know, so he has to be there for all of them, collect them all and hope in the end they add up to something that feels like a real family.
I chose up We’re All In This Together on a recent trip to the bookstore because I was feeling tired and a bit wary of books that, for whatever reason, I felt I should read: I wanted to bring home something that promised to be both smart and fun. I chose well! I thoroughly enjoyed and admired this book, which has the intimacy and precision of an Anne Tyler novel but is done in bolder colours, with stronger contrasts and, especially, deeper shadows.
We’re All In This Together covers a few turbulent days in the life of the Parker family: Kate Parker–wife to Walter, mother to twins Nicki and Finn, grandmother to (among others) London, Milan, Vienna, and Ross, foster mother to Shawn–has gone over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel and survived, more or less. Kate’s “epic plunge” becomes the catalyst for a series of reckonings in the family, including with Kate’s own rapidly advancing dementia. Was she out of her mind when she decided to go over the falls, or was her daredevil act in some way an expression of her truest self, of the Kate who was never wholly at home in her own family and who feels her memories of the person she once was slipping relentlessly away? “She is tired of living a life without adventure,” Kate herself thinks:
Perhaps she wouldn’t feel this way if she had never known anything different, if she had lived the staid and quiet life in Thunder Bay the way she was supposed to, the way her family thinks she did. She doesn’t know what they think of her now, but she does know that there are quite a few things they would be surprised to discover about her, things she keeps in her heart like a song that only she knows the words to, that she can hum to herself when things get difficult, when she can’t remember someone’s name or how to use the telephone, when she is feeling lost or hopeless or stupid. These are the memories she is most terrified of losing. The memories she has no photos of, the memories that are her only connection to the brave and wonderful person she used to be . . . If she loses them, there will be no one who can remind her of what she’s lost, and that brave and wonderful person will be gone forever.
Jones tells the story of this crisis and its aftermath through chapters from the points of view of different members of the family, exploring both the vexed present and the past that created it. One result of this structure is to keep our sympathies shifting, as we never quite settle into any one perspective on the family’s complicated and often conflicted relationships. There are shifts in tone, too: some parts of the novel are laugh-out-loud funny, others are poignant, tense, uncomfortable, some are painfully bleak. The day Kate goes over the falls, for instance, Shawn’s wife Katriina miscarries for the third time. What room is there for her personal trauma in the midst of this family crisis? Her only refuge is a house she is trying to sell but can’t, because everyone in Thunder Bay knows what happened in it: “Margaret Paulsson went into her twelve-year-old daughter Claudia’s bedroom to wake her up for school and found her hanging from a leather belt attached to the ceiling fan.” Now vacant, the Paulsson house is where Katriina goes to find a strange, empty kind of peace. The house’s haunted vacancy reflects her own repressed suffering, which she secretly expresses by snapping an elastic band over and over on her wrist, and later by cutting “a long, looping spiral on the inside of her calf with a box cutter.”
The novel’s forward momentum comes mostly from Finn’s story: after what she sees as an unforgivable betrayal by Nicki, she has left Thunder Bay for Toronto to start a new life, cut off from her family. Kate’s misadventure brings Finn home again, but it takes the whole novel for her and everyone else to figure out how or if or where she still belongs. Kate, too, has to find her way back, first from the coma she’s in after she’s recovered from Kakabeka Falls, and then from a more literal expedition she goes on with London. (I’m avoiding specifics because this is the kind of novel that sustains and repays curiosity out about what will happen next.) “If this were the movies,” members of the Parker family often say, imagining how their lives might play out if they were planned, scripted, directed. “But this is not the movies,” Kate concludes towards the end of the novel, holding Walter’s hand and “hoping that this moment is one of the ones she will remember.” Of course, the intertwined stories of the Parker family are planned, by the author of their novel, and artfully orchestrated as well, but We’re All In This Together embraces the disorderly energy of real life, with its mingling of hope and despair, laughter and tears.