Narrators, prose style and how the Kriegstein family's mom, Elsie, might next reinvent herself are all up for grabs in Brittani Sonnenberg's unconventional and sharply written debut novel, "Home Leave."
The story has a straightforward story line: An American couple with two daughters live abroad, and tragedy strikes. It's also very close to Sonnenberg's own story. Like the Kriegstein daughters, Sonnenberg lived with her parents on three continents, suffered the death of a sister and, along the way, discovered that home isn't always a place.
She said she began writing "Home Leave" as a memoir, but she felt more like a reporter than a storyteller. Only when she allowed herself "the freedom of fiction," she said in an interview with her publisher, was she able to bring the story to life, putting real-life events into "wildly different scenarios, inventing characters and rewriting outcomes."
Indeed, "Home Leave" is imaginative. But it also contains a vivid authenticity that makes it acceptable for Sonnenberg to jump between straight narrative, chapters written as scenes in a play and multiple narrators. These include not just parents Chris and Elsie and their daughters Leah and Sophie, but also Chris' great-grandmother and a group of children — called third-culture kids — who have grown up in cultures other than their parents'. Elise's childhood home even has a voice.
Often, the structure can feel unsettled. But as the family moves between Germany, Shanghai and the United States, and as startling actions lead to even more startling reactions, the Kriegsteins' lives grow unsettled, too.
Chris' craving for corporate super-success and Elise's unapologetic quest to continually reinvent herself take the daughters on as much of an emotional journey as a physical one. Inseparable and bound by love and necessity, it is the daughters who face the greatest upheavals in "Home Leave" — particularly Leah, who suffers the most from Sophie's death.
"You might think, given the pain of losing my younger sister, Blair, I would have wanted to make that story end differently for the Kriegsteins and keep Sophie alive," Sonnenberg said. "But I wanted to look closely at how a family that lacks a geographical home, and considers the family unit itself 'home,' deals with loss when one of its own members suddenly dies."
Made of writing that is stark but sweet, warm and wise, "Home Leave" is an ambitious, well-executed debut from a writer who up until now has been known primarily for her short stories and NPR commentaries about life in Berlin. No doubt, "Home Leave" will leave many readers hoping for another Sonnenberg novel full of the same humor, compassion and honesty.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.