“But how can you prepare for the unknown? For the impossible? She wants to know what to do, how to behave, but there are no precedents in her life, or any other life she has heard of to follow. She can only think of movies. A spy picture: the agent going undercover, pretending to be somebody else, ferreting out secrets.” (Familiar by J. Robert Lennon)
This book is part of that strange-sounding sub-genre that I’d never thought I’d come to enjoy so much: literary psychological thriller. If you’ve never read one before, the mainstay is that the ‘literary’ pretty much cancels out the ‘thriller’ aspects, and the reader is left with a slow, creepy novel that crawls into your subconscious, depositing fears you never knew you had. In this case, Lennon draws out the fears of being unfamiliar with one’s self and one’s own family.
Lennon writes a character who suddenly finds herself transported into a different version of herself, living a different life. She simultaneously has to find clues about her recent past and discover why this change happened to her. She considers parallel universes, insanity, or some sort of divine intervention, but never finds proof for any hypothesis. Lennon does not do the work of answering these questions for the reader; instead he lets the unsettling tension between the familiar and unfamiliar pull the reader through the book without succumbing to the temptation of a tidy ending. Yet, Lennon is also too sly to write a novel that simply experiments with the possibilities of alternate words; he also explores the disturbing realities of dysfunctional families – of how our children can be both familiar and completely unknowable.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: Generally untidy and vague, except for the last page, which is just weird
Further Reading: This book is not for everyone, but those who loved the mild and haunting creepiness of, say, I am the Cheese, might find that J. Robert Lennon is their new favorite author. I also read The Dinner (post pending) by Koch recently and thought it was an excellent follow-up to this book.