Familiar by J. Robert Lennon: Same, same but different

Cover imageI’ve been looking forward to J. Robert Lennon’s new novel having been a fan for some time. This one has a particularly daring premise and a very startling opening. As scientist Elisa Macalaster Brown makes her way home from her annual visit to her son’s grave in their old home town she experiences something strange and inexplicable. Concentrating on a crack in her windscreen she enters what could be described as a fugue state, coming to and finding herself and her car entirely changed. She’s wearing different clothes, there’s a conference badge pinned to her smart jacket and her car is coolly air-conditioned as opposed to her customary beat up old Honda. She returns home to find the house subtly different, her husband more attentive and, alarmingly, a family photograph showing Silas several years older than the day he was killed in a car crash.

Elisa finds ways to adapt to her new life, trawling her inbox for hints about her job, telling her worried husband first that she thinks she’s had a stroke, then that she seems to have a strange amnesia. But there are puzzling aspects to this new life: what are the rules that she has agreed to with their creepy twice-divorced therapist, why is she such great friends with the previously despised Judith and why do she and Derek have no contact with their sons who, when she does break the rules and visit them, she finds locked into the same dysfunctional relationship she remembers from her old life. Elisa’s old and new lives begin blur: she rejects many of the strictures of the new preferring the old despite the awful grief of losing her difficult, troubled son whose estrangement and the reasons behind it in her new life are almost as painful. Over it all looms the question how could this have possibly happened to her.

The concept of parallel worlds enables Lennon to explore the way in which our choices shape our lives – career options narrow or widen, parenting decisions influence the adults children become, battles fought or not fought within a marriage may result in separation or understanding – posing the question would we remain the same people we are if our choices had been different. Part of the fascination of this novel is wondering just how Lennon will resolve the conundrum of Elisa’s experience. When it comes, the resolution seems a little confused but it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise. What came before is such an accomplished piece of writing that it almost doesn’t matter.

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