Ann Charney’s third novel begins in Montreal in 1952. Eight-year-old Ellen gazes through her bedroom window, awaiting the arrival of the refugees who will inhabit the empty rooms of her mother’s grandiose Mount Royal home. As she studies the frost that has formed on her window overnight, Ellen wonders whether the icy pattern constitutes a coded message: “My goal was to make life resemble the stories I had read in books, where one event inevitably led to another, and each page flowed effortlessly into the next.”
From this first inkling of Ellen’s literary aspirations, Distantly Related to Freud traces the formative decade of the young girl’s life. Like Ellen’s mother, the refugees who take up residence in her home come from Central Europe, and represent for Ellen a way of understanding her family history. When they eventually move on, one of the few tangible links to her European ancestry that Ellen is left with is a portrait of Sigmund Freud, a distant relative. The refugees are eventually replaced by Ellen’s Aunt Celia, whose obsession with safety becomes a trial for her increasingly independent niece.
Ellen’s mother maintains a close circle of émigré acquaintances, including Dr. Henryk Steiner, whose penchant for pleasure-seeking brings further unrest to the household when he becomes Ellen’s stepfather. Ellen takes refuge in her friendship with Lydia, whose background is similar to her own. A grisly incident during a trip to visit cousins in New York provides the fodder for Ellen’s initial literary endeavours.
Distantly Related to Freud deals with immigrant experience, familial relations, and sexual and intellectual maturation. Charney’s narration is elegant and understated throughout. The narrative, however, resembles an episodic Victorian novel, with a meandering and occasionally sensationalistic plot. Characters emerge from the margins of Ellen’s life, only to recede and re-emerge once again. The reader comes to know Ellen intimately, but the novel’s other characters remain as distant and mysterious as her own family history is to her.
At its best, the novel offers considerable insight into the increasingly complex mind of an ambitious young writer. Elsewhere, it is overly digressive, and the significance of its details is difficult to discern.