Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.
We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.
It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.
This is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.
I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:
A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.
He is home. He is home.
You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.