Fault Lines

by Nancy Huston

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Fault Lines

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Fault Lines, divided into four parts, has four narrators, each of whom is six years old at the time of the telling. Spanning four generations, the story begins in 2004 but rewinds through successive narrators, each of whom is the parent of the child in the previous section. While each segment is set in an historical era marked by war and political upheaval, there is just one gradually disclosed family secret rooted in Nazi Germany. This explains not only the family history but also the many political-historical situations that shaped the characters of the wounded and wounding family members whose fault lines reach into the twenty-first century.

The first six-year-old is Solomon, nicknamed Sol, who is worshipped by his mother as a little god-king. His resulting narcissism requires the reader eventually to view the creepy Sol as a victim of an emotional illness that may be the consequence of the way his mother has chosen to raise him. His mother’s Christian evangelism and the self-esteem movement have had an influential role in creating the arrogant but weak and anorexic Sol. His psychological development is also depicted within the context of the foreign policy of the U.S. government with regard to the war in Iraq, which both of his parents unquestioningly support. In fact, Sol’s father Randall works for the military effort by exploring ways to create an army of warrior-robots.

While his doting mother has deluded herself into believing that her child rearing is an enlightened one that has produced in Sol a paragon of virtue and innocence, the boy’s inner life is warped and sadistic. As a consequence of the excessive sanitizing of his life, Sol is driven to seek out the evil hidden and undisclosed by his mother, and his ability to access this evil through an unsupervised Internet connection allows him to live a double life. His discovery of the torture of Muslim prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, for instance, creates in Sol a fascination with brutality and with sexualized brutality, and he gravitates to Web sites that show pornography or violence or, ideally, both. Although Sol seems to be an evil little creature, at the same time the reader understands that his upbringing may be a very subtle form of abuse. His eating disorder, his manipulative and exploitive relationship to his mother, and the falsity of the self she has insisted on constructing for him all suggest that the fault line Sol represents in the family may end not in the success of which he feels he has been assured but in a cataclysmic earthquake. This bad seed, however, is not only connected to the cultural and political dynamics of the United States. Huston uses the phrase “fault line” to suggest that Sol must be understood in relationship not to the present but to the fissures that go back to Sol’s grandmother and great-grandmother, with their roots in Europe. Sol’s unsightly brown birthmark, for instance, is a genetic heritage from his grandmother Erra; even when Sol’s mother attempts to have it surgically removed, it remains as an ugly scar that indicates the continuing presence of the past. Sol’s ties to the past are further emphasized when his grandmother Sadie insists that the entire family revisit the German village in which Sol’s great grandmother was raised. Sol’s visit to Germany is the first of the unsettling geographic dislocations that the reader comes to understand as a recurring family pattern.

This theme of uprooting is further explored in the next chapter, which takes place in l984 and which features Randall, Sol’s father, as a six-year-old....

(This entire section contains 1792 words.)

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Randall’s controlling and perfectionist mother, Sadie, obsessed with her family roots in Germany, ruthlessly relocates her son and his acquiescent father to Haifa, Israel, in order to research the Nazi Lebensborn (Fountain of Life) project that bred blond, blue-eyed boys and girls or took blond, blue-eyed children from various conquered territories and recycled them into German families. Huston relocates Sadie’s family at the time of the civil war in Lebanon, and even more specifically the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. The zealous Sadie, who has converted to Judaism, defends Israel’s role in these massacres against her dissenting Jewish husband; the resolution of this conflict, however, as far as Randall is concerned, is saved for his little Palestinian friend Nouzha. Randall is sure Nouzha has put a vengeful curse on his family as a result of the massacre, resulting in the tragic crippling of his mother in what appeared to have been an unrelated accident.

The third narrative voice is that of six-year-old Sadie in 1964; the political context is the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since her mother is preoccupied with pursuing a singing career, Sadie’s Montreal grandparents are raising her. While Sadie’s charming and playful mother attempts to rescue Sadie from her harsh grandparents, the appearance of Janek, a long-lost figure from the old country, changes everything. Always feeling the outsider, Sadie begins to view herself as even more an interloper when her mother marries Janek, changes her name to Erra, relocates to the United States, and seeks world renown as a musical artist. The depressive Janek, whom Sadie does not like, is an eventual suicide, further causing her to question her mother’s choices in life.

As with Randall and Sol, Sadie has inherited her mother’s birthmark. Though her mother Erra’s same birthmark is the source of artistic power, this imperfection also indicates the disruptive relationship between mother and child that marked Erra’s childhood. Erra’s story, told when she is a six-year-old living in Germany, is set in l944. At this time, she knows herself as a German child named Kristina. An older boy named Janek, whom the family adopts to replace the son they lost in the war, tells Kristina something she had suspected earlier as a result of the hurtful words from her sister Greta during an argument over a doll. Janek tells her that she, too, was kidnapped and adopted by a German family, as he was. Janek, who appeared a minor aspect of the earlier narrative, becomes a crucial component of the final chapter. It is the angry Janek who makes irreparable the estrangement from her family, begun with Erra’s rivalry with her sister, and encourages her to break from them completely. The break with this mother is a consequence of Kristina’s realization that her adoptive mother had participated in the Lebensborn project that led her to take Kristina as her own child. However, even without this devastating realization, it is clear from the beginning that Kristina’s mother, not altogether consciously, privileged her biological daughter over her adoptive one; this is especially suggested by Greta’s receiving a beautiful doll one Christmas that is clearly superior to the gift given Kristina.

After the war, Kristina is told that she is Ukrainian, but that her family is dead; she is adopted by another Ukrainian family that has relocated to Canada. She also dedicates herself to a musical based on singing wordless songs. Her need to do this moves beyond simple ambition, since it becomes a way to indicate the trauma of having been deprived of her mother tongue and of having been subjected to the abandonment, not only by her German caregiver, but also by her dim and traumatic memories of neglect in the orphan asylum in which she was placed when she was taken from her birthmother. Singing with no language becomes for Erra a way to express what it means to have no mother. Erra’s petite stature also suggests that her loss at the age of six of the woman she thought was her mother has kept her a permanent child whose singing, however joyful, is destined on one level to voice this loss. Erra returns to Germany, and the last impression the reader has is of her as the six-year-old she once was, still quarrelling with her sister Greta over the possession of the desirable Christmas doll. Her new name, Erra, also points to the circumstances of her wounding childhood, since her adoptive name is not connected to her Ukrainian roots but is taken from an ancient Near Eastern god of war and pestilence.

An intriguing aspect of this novel is the way in which Kristina-Erra’s victimization in Nazi Germany, which has never been consciously available to Sol or his parents, nevertheless haunts the latest generation based in California. The German society’s decision to start the clock at zero after the war has in reality not left the past behind. Randall has traveled far away temporally and spatially from the suffering caused his grandmother by the eugenic policies of the Nazis, but his family is scarred nevertheless, although in an unexpected way. The twenty-first century sees Randall involved in the creation of a robotic army that his mother Sadie describes bitterly as the achievement of the perfect Nazi military machine; his son Sol at times appears to be a little Hitler-in-the-making.

Additionally, the tragedy of Erra’s childhood has inaugurated a pattern of selfish or self-absorbed mothering in tandem with a pattern of weak and despairing fathers. Huston’s point is that the dysfunctions of the family can be understood as a consequence of the destruction of Erra’s original identity, nationality, religion, and language. The fault lines created by this psychological catastrophe are made more dire by the suppression of the truth in the cause of making a complete break with the past. That Huston sets her saga during times of war and terror adds a political dimension to all that has gone badly for this family since World War II. It is not only the family but also the world that seems somehow to have gone wrong.

This carefully planned and beautifully executed novel is a tour de force, as Huston uses the voices of six-year-olds to narrate a personal story, which opens up to larger historical contexts. Interestingly, her depiction of each child’s perceptions includes as much sophistication as naïveté, so that each child seems to know a great deal and yet have a great deal more to learn. Huston effectively deploys dramatic irony in a way that affords the reader an understanding of the family’s complex and tragic destiny that is never quite given to the novel’s confused children. Huston has created a type of mystery-thriller in this novel about suffering passed through many generations. The reader is engaged with the narrative as a witness to the events portrayed, as a fascinated detective seeking clues embedded in history, and a psychoanalyst investigating the mysteries of the soul.


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Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 36.

The Guardian, March 15, 2008, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 16 (August 15, 2008): 45.

Library Journal 133, no. 12 (July 1, 2008): 61.

The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2008, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 22 (June 2, 2008): 25.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 7, 2008, p. 21.