Vintage Canada, 2015
288 pp., $17.95
Salted with Fire
Certainly the journals provide a window into Gabe's painful struggles. "All my life," he writes, "I have been alone, even with my family that I love." And later he says, "It's not that I don't want to live, it's that somehow I've lost a means by which to function." He expresses despair at feeling distant from God, and in turn anger toward God for his seeming absence: "I would rather burn in hell than go to a 'Father' who just creates and then leaves you on your own." A final possible cause of Gabe's death is depression over his unrequited and impossible love for Ailsa. As he says in frustration, "I need a lover and A is a child."
The reader's sympathies are strongly with Hal, whose encounter with the words of his long-dead son re-opens the wound of grief and guilt (Hal was out of town when his son's body was discovered). "Why are there so few facts about us," he laments, "you and me being together?" Echoing King David, Hal keens, "O Gabriel my son, O my son, my son Gabriel."
The novel gains poignancy for those readers who know that Rudy Wiebe's own son Michael also committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1985. But it would be prudent to avoid viewing the novel as autobiography. Wiebe himself warns of this danger. "Fiction is what you make of a fact," he says (a bit pedantically, perhaps). "Fiction is an imagined construct which may be triggered by fact. This is what imagination does."
In contrast to Canadian writer Miriam Toews, who has written critically of her Mennonite roots and whose latest novel All My Puny Sorrows also deals with the topic of family suicide, Wiebe shows a more compassionate and gentle tone toward his community. In the throes of grief, Hal, a devout Mennonite, finds spiritual consolation in his upbringing: remembered childhood songs and evening prayers, familiar lines from old hymns, and texts from Scripture. The novel's title, Come Back, is therefore not so much a command as a prayer.
After police knock on his door in response to the accidents he caused with his mad dash that snowy morning, Hal escapes to the family cottage at Aspen Creek, waiting for an answer to the agonizing question asked by every parent whose child has committed suicide: "Why?"
Wiebe offers no glib answers. Still, the reader discerns hints of meaning. Come Back opens with two epigraphs; the first gives us Jesus' words recorded in Mark 9:49: "For everyone will be salted with fire," a paradoxical image that suggests both preservation and purification. As the apostle Paul states in Romans 5:3-4, human suffering is a refining fire that leads in turn to perseverance, character, and hope.
The second epigraph consists of the familiar words of 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we look through a mirror into an enigma, but then face to face," which suggests that humans may never understand the tragic loss of a child but also affirms with steadfast faith that someday all will be revealed. As though he had Paul's words in mind, Wiebe says, "The hope, the faith, the love within human spirituality are the realities that become most powerful in the lives of the novel's characters, though they cannot, of course, experience these realities fully. At least not yet."
Come Back offers honest and eloquent testimony to this profound faith, hope, and love.
Hugh Cook is professor (emeritus) of English at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and the author of four books of fiction. The latest, a novel titled Heron River, was reviewed in the July/August 2012 issue of Books & Culture and is available at www.mosaic-press.com.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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