“The trick was not to let them see you suffering,” (Foss 142).
There’s too much happening in middle-aged single parent Elin Henriksen’s life. Her distant mother’s health is declining, her teenage daughter Betts is planning on going somewhere but won’t tell Elin where, the new high school principal where she teaches disapproves of how she teaches physics, and now the art gallery in her town is going to be renamed after her late father. Tig Henriksen was a modernist furniture designer whose pieces have a cult following, and the renaming of the art gallery means Elin will have to see her estranged siblings: her singer-songwriter sister Mette and emotionally closed architect brother Caspar. With a party to plan, and her carefully balanced life seemingly falling through her fingers with her only confident a dead physicist Elin speaks to through voice notes on her phone, Elin’s own secrets that she’s been holding on to threaten to explode as they did once years before. What more damage could be done from them?
It took me quite a while to get into Half Life. The biggest drawback is that Foss doesn’t use punctuation or quotation marks to show when dialogue is happening, so it isn’t always clear to reader’s whether what’s written is being said aloud or if it’s internal to Elin. There’s a moment late in the book where something that I thought was internal is acknowledged by a character interacting with Elin meaning she actually spoke, which was done purposefully. While I haven’t read anything else by Foss and can’t confirm whether or not this is how Foss writes all her novels, I can sort of understand why it was done here. Sort of, but like most of Half Life I missed a lot of what it was trying to say.
Another issue that complicates Half Life is it’s jumping through time. There is a clear distinction from the past in the beginning (sometime in the 1990s I believe), and then the next section of the present, but in the present time jumps around without any indication. Elin remembers her childhood, then she’ll remember early motherhood, then she’ll remember her mother’s stories as a resistance fighter in the Second World War. It’s inconsistent, it’s jarring, and then readers are brought back into the present and it’s hard to remember what exactly is happening in the present.
As I continued reading, I came to expect the time jumps and was used to the lack of distinction with dialogue. It didn’t make reading it any easier, but I got used to it, and getting used to these things made me understand what Foss was doing with this book. I understand the themes of the book, the revelation of Elin’s trauma and how the “bomb” of that set off an irreparable dynamic in her family. I understand that, but I still feel like I missed something. Maybe it was the physics jargon and the fact that I don’t know much about physics, maybe it was just the disjointedness of the writing. It had a purpose, I understand that, but it just didn’t feel tight enough to work.
Half Life isn’t a bad book, but it’s tricky. Some people will love this book but I wasn’t one of those readers, but I can appreciate it. I don’t know if I’ll continue reading Foss’ work, but I’m glad I at least read this one.
Publication: March 2 2021
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Pages: 328 pages (Paperback)
Genre: Fiction, Adult, Canadian (but set in the States)
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤
Elin Henriksen is a middle-aged single parent under pressure. Her formidable mother’s health is declining, her fearless teenage daughter wants to leave but won’t say where, and the new high school principal has problems with her unorthodox teaching of physics.
And then there is the upcoming ceremony at the Art Museum. In ten days, a gallery will be named after her late father, Tig Henriksen, a modernist furniture designer whose sought-after cult pieces hide a troubled narrative. With a mixture of anticipation and dread, Elin prepares to reunite with her once-estranged siblings–Mette, a free-spirited singer-songwriter, and the serious, emotionally distant architect Casper–hoping they’ll finally grapple with hard truths they’ve so far refused to accept.
In the countdown to the event, as her daughter’s risk-taking mounts, her mother’s fragility intensifies and strange packages land on her doorstep (including a yellow-eyed dog), Elin’s only relief is confiding to a dead physicist.
Struggling with the paradoxes of truth and clarity, love and witness, genius and ambition, and her own ambivalent connection to her confessor, she inches toward confronting not just the explosive potential of memory but the costly fallout of silence.