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Pickle Me This

February 28, 2009

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos’ novel Sing Them Home is a little bit of everything. Imagine Alice Sebold meets Wally Lamb meets Fannie Flagg, and then they all get spun up in a funnel cloud. Imagine a 500+ page novel that goes by like a breeze. This is one of those comfortable books you crawl your way into, and linger long inside, happy and warm. But then that the novel is well-written also almost seems like too much to be true.

Sing Them Home is the story of the Jones family, whose three siblings come together after their father’s death– he is killed on the golf course, struck by lightning. The family having long ago been left fragmented by their mother’s disappearance, when she “went up” with a tornado and her body was never found. So that the Jones children are practically strangers to one another– art history professor Larken lives her adamantly independent life far from her hometown of Emlyn Springs, seeking solace in eating; her brother Gaelan is a well-known weatherman and bodybuilder who seeks his solace in meaningless relationships; and Bonnie the youngest who has stayed closest to home persists in cycling up and down country roads seeking garbage she interprets as “artifacts” from the ditches.

The novel’s course is the year following their father’s death, during which the Jones siblings struggle to come to terms with their grief, as well as with finally reconciling with the tragedy in which they lost their mother. Emlyn Springs the backdrop for all of this, a small town in Nebraska, quirky characters populating its dying streets, but Kallos does something remarkable in making Emlyn Springs somewhere quite particular. With its Welsh heritage especially– reflected and really outlined here in language, rituals and traditions– as well as characters far richer than small town cliches, the town becomes actually not a backdrop at all, but is as much of a character in the story as its residents.

In similarly dealing with specifics, Kallos also makes each of her characters’ individual perspectives utterly convincing. Larken’s world is seen through the prism of an art lover, all colours and tones, while Gaelan’s profession is fascinatingly explored, clearly an integral part of his life. Bonnie, the more whimsical of the three, is never quite as pin-down-able, always a little bit more flighty, but this is also the very point of her. Kallos’ narrative switching back and forth between these characters effortlessly, encompassing also the perspective of their father’s mistress, and diary entries interspersed representing the voice of their long lost mother.

So the dead speak, which means there is magic here amongst the solid realism. Some bits so utterly fantastic, bordering on sentimental, that indeed it can seem like too much to be true. The ending in particular so perfectly tidy (but perfectly satisfying!), all its ends tied, but then how could we bear any of them to be left straggling? Such tidiness not quite the way the real world works, but then thank goodness we have here a book instead.

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