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Where the Trauma Began

A novel traces an intricate European family history

In Fault Lines (Grove, $14.00), Nancy Huston tells the story of four generations of a family fractured by its collision with Nazi Germany. In reverse chronological order Huston introduces us to a series of three six-year-old, first-person narrators, each one an only child who is the sole vessel for the previous generations’ grief. In the novel’s last section we finally meet Erra, the child who was the greatgrandmother, grandmother, and mother of the previous sections. She appears the best-adjusted member of her family, but it is her personal trauma, which surprisingly she seems to have survived unscathed, which has shattered her descendants.

Fault Lines is a book about the wrong kind of inheritance — the damage that parents unwittingly pass onto their children and the resulting, superior perception of children over their blinded parents. While the secret of Erra’s childhood is the driving force of the narrative, her neglected daughter Sadie, its first inheritor, becomes the novel’s central figure. Erra wants to bury her harrowing past, but Sadie is compelled to spend her entire life digging it up, and to force her son, grandson, and even her mother to confront it with her. “It’s for your sake, too, you know?” she explains to her son. “I mean, how can we build a future together if we don’t know the truth about our past, right?” At 26, Sadie uncovers the outlines of her mother’s secret. The remainder of the novel is thus driven not by suspense, but by character development in reverse. The reader sees how the child becomes the man by meeting the man first.

As if their shared family history isn’t enough, Huston gives them another, strange inheritance: a mole that serves as imaginary friend, evil demon, and silent witness to all four of the characters whose skin it marks. The reader first learns about the mole — though not its significance — from Sol, Sadie’s self-centered, perverted, coddled grandson, the product of 21st century indulgences, not the 20th century’s horrors. His personal drama first intersects with the awful family history when he is forced to have the mole removed, and later when he relates, bored and annoyed, how Sadie drags the entire family to Erra’s childhood home. Is he disconnected from the thread that tied the previous three generations together because it was literally carved out of his cheek?

We back into the novel’s secret at the end, but the moral comes at the beginning with Sol’s story. Time may heal all wounds, but brings with it new ones. Each section renews this notion: When the child who is the future is already so damaged, does it matter what happened to the parent who made it so? It does in Fault Lines, which makes peeling back the layers such a satisfying reading experience.

Tammy Hepps is a software developer living in New York City.