Home Leave is a book that is perfectly titled, a clever use of corporate and government terminology for sending employees back home and an invocation of the paradoxical phenomenon of only being able to recognize home after you’ve left it. Brittani Sonnenberg’s first novel is preoccupied with what it means to leave home, the unmooring that results when families relocate, fall apart, come together and then fracture. The novel tells the story of the Kriegsteins – Elise and Chris, and their daughters Leah and Sophie. Narration shifts from character to character (even Elise’s childhood house gets to narrate a chapter), sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, loosely arced from Elise’s childhood to her daughter Leah’s engagement some forty years later, although sometimes interrupted with jumps backward and forward in time. All of these shifts – of structure, voice and setting – are manifestations of the struggle to articulate being at home and being away, leaving and coming back, the difficulty of laying claim to terms like home, family, belonging without an anchoring house, city, state or nation.
Reading Home Leave is a little like going to a wedding as someone’s date – you encounter a family for the first time and see some its most intimate interactions, its trajectories of memory, idiosyncratic rituals and storied lineages that play out before you, character by character, bond by bond. If you’re like me in these wedding-date scenarios, you find yourself curious about the worried glances at someone’s refilled glass, the alternate scolding and parading of children; about whether the couple is going to make it. These are the kind of family dynamics that stretch across space and time in Sonnenberg’s fiction, and as we watch Elise and Chris come together, their relationship fray and rebuild, we see their rituals (both private and as a family) of coping with migration, separation, loss. More than anything, we watch them move from place to place, the result of Chris’s successful career in business and a defining characteristic of Leah and Sophie’s understandings of themselves, family and home.
Sonnenberg offers an apt, funny and moving description of home leave when the Kriegstein girls leave Chris for the summer to return to the States:
Home leave feels like trying to watch two movies with one VCR. Early on in the middle of the first film, you eject the tape and slide the second one in, watch that for a while, and then go back to the first one, in the middle of the scene where you stopped the tape. The advantage of such a system is that you can watch two movies, nearly simultaneously. But the choppiness of the viewing experience speaks against it, not to mention how annoying it is to repeatedly get up from the sofa.
Descriptions like these resonated with me partly because of my own family’s tendency to move around when I was a kid. As a child, my dad worked in the Foreign Service, which is why my brother was born in Germany and my sister and I were born in DC. He left the Foreign Service when I was still a toddler and although we continued to move throughout my childhood they were mostly smaller in scale, and thus less glamorous than I imagined the lives of our diplomat friends (and their kids) to be. (My dad being in the Foreign Service is also how I met Brittani and her family. Although technically I’ve known the Sonnenbergs all my life, I’ve met Brittani exactly twice, once in 1994 when her family visited California and once in 2014, when we had coffee together in Berlin.) Later on, my envy for this imagined migratory life turned to gratitude towards my parents for trying to keep us in place, for shielding us from a social life of people who only know how to connect in two-year increments. With its description of recognizable sibling attachment in unrecognizable places, Home Leave confirms both my suspicious of the glamorously cosmopolitan and my thankfulness at having stayed put.
This is probably why plants are such a big deal for Sonnenberg. As location shifts throughout this text, we are given a concurrent introduction to native plants: honeysuckle in Hamburg, bougainvillea in Georgia, frangipani in Singapore. Even the name of Elise’s sister’s band – Choked by Kudzu – invokes not just plants but what it is that plants do. They take hold and take root, they even occasionally invade and destroy. The endurance of plants can represent what can and cannot grow and thrive in a given place, a theme over which the Kriegsteins alternately agonize and embrace as they shift from place to place. At the risk of courting melodrama, the use of plants and flowers reminded of an interview with Claude Lanzman about his seminal film Shoah. When asked about his fascination with filming the rocks that remain near former concentration camps, Lanzman explained that the rocks have borne silent witness to so much suffering and so much death. But despite the pain and suffering that takes place in Home Leave, Sonnenberg is preoccupied less with questions of death than with living and thriving after death comes near. [Spoiler alert: Death comes very near. – ed.] How, and where, and with whom, does a person rebuild? Is rebuilding psychologically possible without a physical set of walls and a roof?
Partly because of moving, partly because of marriage, partly because of unimaginable loss, the Kriegstiens try many methods of rebuilding, including therapy. Most of the time, I do not like fiction that includes scenes of therapy, because it seems like a narrative failure, a copout for the author to introduce inner dialogue that he or she can’t summon any other way. The family therapy scenes in Home Leave were for me deeply, deeply moving, and revelatory of the way raw hurt can somehow be simultaneously shared and deeply fragmenting in a family, at once a force that binds people together and wedges them apart.
Home Leave is haunted by many things, but none so much as the elusiveness of home. Even for people who grow up in the same place, who stay close to their parents throughout their lives, who have never experienced deep personal lost, the question of what constitutes home and how to leave it is one that is both familiar and necessary.
– Jessa Lingel is a robot masquerading as a librarian masquerading as a scientist.