Two things drew me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause: I’d enjoyed his previous novel, Everything I Don’t Remember, back in 2016, and the blurb sounded tempting with its promise of chaotic and discordant family life. I’d been expecting a fairly straightforward linear narrative but that’s not Khemiri’s style. This everyday tale of a dysfunctional family unfolds over the course of the twice-yearly visit by its patriarch who spends the rest of his time in another country. Each character is named only in relationship to the others.
The patriarch has an arrangement with his son who refers to it as the ‘father clause’: when the patriarch visits Sweden he stays in his son’s office which was once the patriarch’s flat signed over to the son who also takes care of his financial affairs. The son is on paternity leave, looking after their four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son while his girlfriend is at her work as a union lawyer. The son’s sister is the patriarch’s favourite, considered much more successful than her accountant brother on whom the patriarch leans, but with a broken marriage and a son who refuses to speak to her. Over the course of the patriarch’s ten-day visit arrangements will be missed, demands will be made, crises will be both averted and endured, humiliations suffered and memories raked over. By the time the patriarch packs his suitcase full of things to sell back in the other country where such goods are scarce, everything and nothing will have changed.
I very nearly gave up The Family Clause a few pages into it. Khemiri gives each of the ten days of the patriarch’s visit a chapter, dipping in and out of the heads off the major characters, named only in their relationship to each other and their current status, shifting perspectives throughout so that we are privy to their thoughts, memories and interpretations both of each other and of events. I found it completely discombobulating initially but perseverance pays off and once used to it, I became curiously addicted to this style which reflects the chaos and dysfunction of the family. The self-regarding, bigoted patriarch has little time for anyone but himself unless its for his daughter whose supposed success reflects well on him, using the son whose need for validation is bottomless as his gofer. The daughter has her own troubles, of course, not least a surprise pregnancy. Khemiri deftly juggles this tricky narrative style leavening the pathos of the damage done over the years with wit and humour – the two passages in the son’s children’s heads were particularly amusing. Not an easy read but it worked for me. If you do decide to give it a try and find yourself wanting to hurl your copy across the room after a few pages, just try sticking with it for a while longer. You may find yourself loving it.
Harvill Secker: London 9781787301139 320 pages Hardback (read via Netgalley)