‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock

Going-home

Fiction – hardcover; Knopf; 258 pages; 2013.

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it.

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

Moving back home

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

The effect of this is to build up a well-rounded, and often touching, portrait of a relatively simple man leading a somewhat complicated, messy life and wondering how he ever got himself into the messes he now finds himself in — living an ocean away from his beloved daughter and finding himself caught up, once again, in his brother’s irresponsible shenanigans.

Unresolved issues

Of course, this novel isn’t perfect and there were some issues that felt unresolved to me. As a book about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years, I felt the absence of any personal dislocation very telling. But perhaps he had bigger issues with which to contend, not least the fact that his brother is still as self-absorbed as he ever was and, as we later find out in a rather dramatic “twist” near the end, quite an appalling sort of character, indeed.

And while the narrative zips along at a rather frenetic pace and effortlessly moves backwards and forwards in time, I sometimes felt as if Bock under-delivered what some of his set pieces had promised. Perhaps it was intentional, but I’m still mulling over a scene very early in the book in which Titus is accused of an abhorrent act that is never properly resolved. What was the point? Was it to foreshadow events, to suggest Titus was his father’s son?

And the ending, which involves a murder, seemed slightly dramatic in what, up until that point, had been a nicely underplayed narrative.

Domestic tale

But what I really liked about Going Home Again was this: it is a wholly domestic tale — about men and women, about marriage, about family, about the fallout of divorce — and it is told from an entirely male perspective. I cannot recall having read a book like this before, and for that reason, it felt new and interesting to me.

I’m not sure Going Home Again is likely to win the Giller Prize, but it’s an enjoyable story that will resonate with those who know that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

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11 thoughts on “‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock

  1. Sounds good. I love that sometimes I like books that others don’t like and, or course, vice-a-versa, although sometimes when it’s the other way around I wonder what is wrong with me. I didn’t particularly like either Gone Girl or The Rehearsal which most people seemed to love. Most of these (shadow) Giller shortlisted books are not yet available in Australia, although The Orenda has just been released in hardback and it’s not that expensive… tempting.

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  2. I largely agree with your review of this one, Kim, though I do share some of Trevor’s reservations about it. Firstly, you’re right: it is incredibly readable and I whipped through it in next to no time too. I enjoyed it quite a bit (and in fact ordered a copy of Bock’s earlier novel ‘The Communist’s Daughter’ as soon as I had finished it) – I thought the writing flowed beautifully and Charlie’s voice was utterly convincing and consistent throughout. I also thought it contained some very good writing about ideas of home and what constitutes family.
    Unfortunately I’d read a review online (National Post) before reading the book, which criticised Bock’s scenery shifting and straining for metaphor so I was almost looking out for those things and they were evident, even if they didn’t spoil the book for me. Though I would’ve guessed that on a second reading (where you’re probably more alert to the actual writing than being swept along by the plot) the judges would have found them troublesome, so I was very surprised to see this make the shortlist. Actually I was surprised to even see it on the longlist – much as I enjoyed it, of the 18 or 19 eligible books I’d read prior to the longlist announcement this wouldn’t have been in my top ten, and the judges had 140-ish (?) books to get through.
    My problem with the novel was to do with the other characters: not only does it feature one (maybe even two) of those children peculiar to fiction who are both wise and able to articulate that wisdom in a manner far beyond their years, but in Nate, Bock gives us a wholly unsympathetic character with no redeeming features whatsoever – in fact he seems almost to exist only to be the opposite of Charlie. So for me using his ‘disappearance’ to bookend the novel was its greatest weakness – I simply didn’t care what had happened to him and I also got the feeling that the novel (the important aspects of it anyway) had finished but then Bock remembered he had left this loose end that he hastily tidied up in an epilogue.
    So, on the whole I did like it, but liking it doesn’t mean I think it is prize-worthy, and for me there were better books on the longlist than this, and better eligible books too (both the other big Canadian prizes have shortlisted Colin McAdam’s excellent ‘A Beautiful Truth’ for instance) so I’d be very disappointed if this were to win the Giller.

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  3. Its a good read, but nothing particularly special, which sounds like I am damning it with faint praise, but as David points out in his comment, there are some aspects, particularly the ending, which weaken it.
    Most of these novels are not published in the UK either — but I was able to order this one from the Book Depository. I now see Amazon have it listed — that wasnt the case a fortnight ago — so I suspect theyve ordered it in on the basis of the Giller listing.
    I think you will like The Orenda… I had hoped to publish a review this weekend, but I wrestled with it and will try to complete it later this week. I think the problem is that I loved the book so much I just couldnt write anything to do it justice.

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  4. I havent read any reviews of this book (apart from Trevors) so wasnt aware of the faults that they allude to — I wasnt looking for metaphors, so they passed me by. But I think youre right about the characters, especially the children (the daughter, I hesitate to add, really annoyed me), and we never really get to know Bock, hes kind of two dimensional, but perhaps thats deliberate — Charlie is not close to him and does not fully know him. Its only through his actions that he comes to see his brother hasnt really changed and isnt a nice person. And yes, that ending does tie up all the loose endings nicely, but I didnt find it a rewarding one — it felt like something youd get in a Hollywood movie. The murder, for instance, just seemed over-the-top to me.

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  5. I agree – the tone of the ending was completely at odds with the quieter, more introspective nature of the rest of the book. Actually, it would have fit happily in either ‘Caught’ or ‘Cataract City’ both of which achieve a much better balance between the literary character stuff and Hollywood drama, though I think both Moore and Davidson would have done it better.

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  6. Well, I havent read Cataract City yet (am still waiting for my copy to arrive from Canada), but I didnt like Caught very much and kept thinking it would probably make a better movie than a book!

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  7. Kimbofo,
    This is a very interesting review. I am looking forward to reading about life itself from the perspective of two male characters. We really don’t see much of that.

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  8. Thanks Sheila. We certainly get lots of books by male writers about all kinds of subjects but I’ve never read one that focuses solely on domestic issues — what it is to be married and divorced, how that affects your children, and how painful it can be to start afresh.

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  9. So many interesting points here!
    Perhaps one of the reasons that the children appear in this manner is that we only have Charlie’s perspective of them? That it is he who believes they hold some kind of wisdom in particular moments, but that, actually, they are likely even more muddled than he is? But as readers we are looking through Charlie’s eyes?
    But, yes, what are we to make of that scene at the swimming pool, and how does it relate to what we see with Nate and a younger female later in the novel?
    And how do we piece that together with what we come to learn about Charlie and the complicated nature of his early encounters in Montreal?
    I wonder if I didn’t miss some interesting parallels in the storytelling, in my rush to piece everything together.
    For me, the lack of disjointedness as Charlies moves around made sense, because it doesn’t seem as though he has really felt that he had a “home” since he was a child, since his parents died (if, even, then).
    And the abruptness of the final scene fit, too, for me, because I imagine that’s what it must have been like, seemingly so out-of-the-blue.
    But, having said that, the novel didn’t resonate that strongly for me; I enjoyed his Olympia and The Communist’s Daughter more, and The Ash Garden more, too, although it wasn’t as much of a favourite.

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  10. I think you’re right about the children and Charlie’s perspective… the entire story is filtered through his eyes, so we can only ever accept one version of events. But I’m still puzzling over that scene at the swimming pool — and I have no idea why Charlie didn’t even bother to tell his brother about it. Did he not think it important? Or did he not want to bother him about it?
    Interesting to hear you enjoyed Bock’s earlier novels more than this one. I’ve added both to my wishlist.

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  11. Me too. It feels like a key of sorts. He certainly seemed to think it was important. And it’s the scene which has stayed most vividly for me (although there is a more obvious choice in that regard, certainly, and the scene where Holly offers an additional piece of information should rank higher, too, probably). I guess because, for me, I really wanted to know what happened, and we aren’t allowed to know that because Charlie does not know either.
    Maybe we are meant to focus on what he does with a situation in which he’s not sure? Or maybe we are supposed to focus on his motivation for not telling Nate? *shakes head* Maybe we aren’t meant to think so much about it at all. Heh.

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