Nancy Huston’s latest novel, Fault Lines, which was originally published in French (winning France’s Prix Femina in 2006) and is here translated by the author herself, is a family history and an exploration of the trauma of war. It’s a tale told backwards in four segments, each narrated by a six-year-old child from a different generation of the same family: Sol in 2004 California, obsessed with Iraq; Randall, encountering the 1982 Lebanon war after moving from New York to Haifa; Sadie in 1962 Toronto and New York; and Kristina in 1944-45 Germany.
None of the four narratives, save perhaps Kristina’s, reads as a convincing six-year-old voice. If it were simply a matter of a too-advanced vocabulary, this might be explained away by the unusual intelligence of each child. But the problem with voice runs deeper: the emotions, as well as the language in which they are expressed, often ring false. Sol contrasts the older mother of his friend with his own mother as follows: “That means she had him when she was forty-four which is disgusting, I can’t believe people go on screwing in old age.” Surely to a six-year-old the idea of adults in their forties “screwing” is no more or less disgusting than that of adults in their twenties.
Despite the flaws in the individual segments, the cumulative effect is powerful. The layering of narratives fosters a complex understanding of individual characters and of family dynamics. The perception of Kristina, for example, shifts kaleidoscopically – we see her first through the eyes of her great-grandson, then of her grandson, then of her daughter, and finally in her own narration. The steady excavation of family secrets that flows from the reverse chronology builds suspense beautifully.