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Pickle Me This

June 19, 2016

We’re All In This Together, by Amy Jones

were-all-in-this-togetherI’ve been having trouble focussing lately on the books I’ve been reading, and I’ve not been sure if the problem has been the books or my lack of focus…or a combination of both? I was hoping for a diversion, however, when I picked up Amy Jones’ debut novel, We’re All In This Together, which became a bestseller when it was published last week. You might remember Jones from her first book, the short story collection What Boys Like—and my interview with her from around that time is really wonderful to read again all these years later. (I recall spending ages transcribing it and then I pretty much never did an actual spoken-word interview ever again. Which is definitely too bad, but not entirely for my mental health.) The novel has received fantastic reviews and I’ve been looking forward to it, although when I first started reading I wasn’t convinced it was going to take. It’s a set-up similar, I thought, to books I’ve read before, books like The Corrections and even Angela Flournoy’s recent The Turner House. A dysfunctional family saga, a prodigal child returning home at a point of crisis. In this case it’s Finn Parker who’s been called back to her hometown of Thunder Bay because her mother’s just ended up in a coma after going over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel—a barrel pilfered from Finn’s brother-in-law’s bootlegging business, no less. So yes, this is not just like another book I’ve read before, but still, it took a bit of reading for the narrative to be properly distinguished.

As I’ve said, part of this is my problem. I haven’t had time to sit down with any book lately and give it the full attention it deserves, entire afternoons to curl up in. Part of the problem also is that the novel begins with characters who are painfully alienated from the worlds around them—Finn has run away from home and has nothing to show for it, living in a boring house in a boring suburb with no friends or other relationships. Her only real companion is a dog she has to borrow from a  neighbour. And then we meet Katriina, who is married to Finn’s adopted brother Shawn, but similar to Finn is emotionally estranged from her surroundings. Both these characters are in contrast to Finn’s twin sister Nicki, who is wholly enmeshed in the world, living as she does with her parents (along with her four children from three different fathers, the last of whom happened to be Finn’s boyfriend at the time). The chapters in the book alternate between various characters’ points of view, highlighting the way that even the closest of families can be fundamentally unknown to each other—and these narratives overlap in a really intriguing manner so that we get to see the same moment from a different perspective more than a few times, to really powerful effect.

The novel is conscious of itself as the kind of story we’re familiar with. Nearly every character at least once or twice thinks, “If this was a movie I’d…” and then proceeds to do the opposite, which starts to get a bit overdone…and yet. There comes a point—and for me this was when we finally get a sense of the story from the Parker matriarch, Kate, whose waterfall plunge has gone viral online and has been declared “The Conquerer of Kakabeka,” when we finally get the story from her point of view—when all these familiar pieces begin to be assembled into something unexpected, deeper and more substantial than the novel’s initial lightness and formula may have suggested. Which is entirely fitting actually because there is something very wrong with Kate, something that drove to ride over the falls in a barrel, and in the midst of her decline over the years, the family has been falling apart all around her. She is her family’s lynchpin as she is too the lynchpin to the book, and with her story, finally the threads—Finn, Katriina, Shawn, Nicki, Nicki’s daughter London (who’s determined to run away to Duluth, Minnesota, to meet a celebrity marine biologist she’s fallen in love in on the internet), and Finn and Nicki’s distant father Walter—all come together to create a richly detailed tapestry, a story that proves the line about no two unhappy families being alike, because while we may have encountered dysfunctional families in books, we’ve never met the Parkers.

It wasn’t too long before I was so totally hooked, and grateful to be reading again, to be fully immersed in a story. There is everything here—sharks, Guns and Roses, a bar brawl, geology, Scrabble, Lake Superior, Paris, pancakes, raw beef, boats, betrayal, sex and destiny. And what is most remarkable about these characters, in addition to their depth, was how they surprised me, and also how Jones does a fantastic job of showing each one at his or her worst and yet invoking our sympathy at the very same time. Nicki in particular is a force of nature, and Jones does a stunning job with this complex, erratic and absolutely, painfully understandable character. I wish Finn had been able to have some similar agency in her own experience, although her own revelation at the end of the novel was that she may have a boring life, but it’s her boring life—no small achievement. Even the more minor characters are just as richly realized, even those who aren’t accorded their own chapters (oh, and every character with a chapter comes with his or her own hazard sign to head it. It’s wonderful.)

By the end of this 400+ page novel, I was only sorry that it wasn’t longer. Which is not to say that the ending, of course, wasn’t exactly right.

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