Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This looked like a good book to read. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and the author was known to me as a translator. It is a coming-of-age novel, and its main charm is the depiction of Amy’s childhood, isolated by her sister’s illness and her own precocity that takes her to the University of Tulsa when she is really too young to cope with the student experience. 

What adult doesn’t look back at some aspects of their childhood with feelings of regret and loss? If home is where the heart is, and Amy’s heart was with her sister Zoe, then homesickness was often with her.

Homesick

The novel closely follows Amy as she and her younger sister grow up in Oklahoma and forge a close bond from Zoe’s birth. Their intimacy is threatened by Zoe’s serious illness, which includes a brain tumour, and requires her to undergo extensive hospital treatment. On her return from hospital the necessity and inconvenience of caring for Zoe means that Amy must leave school and the girls are home-schooled. Amy is cut off from her age group as a result. Both girls decide to learn a new language and Sascha is employed to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian. Amy, in particular, demonstrates an aptitude for languages. 

The theme of photography weaves its way through the narrative. Amy seems to need to freeze an image or a scene as protection against loss. 

Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home. (9)

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature their dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose … Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. (9)

Amy becomes a prodigy, attending the University of Tulsa aged 15. After such a cloistered childhood she is pretty naïve about many aspects of student life, not least drink, drugs and sex. Not surprisingly Amy is not good at it, and the first section, entitled Sick ends with her hospitalised.

The much shorter second section, called Home, takes up Amy’s story several years later as she travels around, mostly in Europe. She takes up many jobs and learns more languages. She seems rootless and it emerges that she is rarely in contact with Zoe. But eventually they are reunited, in Paris, where Amy is currently living with her boyfriend Javi. This is how the novel ends:

The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railings of the Pont des Arts.
Amy and Javi and Zoe are ambling from the Louvre to the Left Bank. Zoe’s health is reasonably good right now, although she is in pain and still has little seizures, along with strange, fiery, snakelike sensations that course through her veins. It is Sunday; it is summer. Glints and reflections scatter out along the Seine. Amy glances back and says, Un Segundo.
Zoe and Javi draw to a pause as Amy removes her camera from its case. Cradling it in her left hand, she takes a deep breath, studies her subject, and then, very gently, she presses the shutter button down. (219)

The format of the book emphasises the juddery nature of Amy’s childhood and early adolescence. Although it the narration is in the 3rd person, it is written in the present tense, and without quotation marks, all of which give it an immediacy and sometimes an urgency. The text is arranged in short sections, usually about 2 pages long, sometimes 3, sometimes only 1. The first sentence of each section is presented in bold like a chapter heading but despite appearances it is part of the narration.

Much of the novel describes the tightness of Amy and Zoe (A to Z), and the angst of watching her sick sister, or dealing with the sudden death of a friend. The detail of the experience of childhood is excellent. The intensity of being a sister to a very sick sibling, of growing up, of losing childhood and childhood relationships, reminds adults that adults don’t see the world from a child’s point of view.

Jennifer Croft was the translator of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press in 2022. 219pp

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