by Rana Asfour
If you were to ask expatriates what their biggest worry is, you’d possibly find that penciled high up on the list, if not at the very top, is the dreaded phone call that conveys the loss of a loved one back home.
Ten years ago, an expatriate myself, on a beautiful spring day while out shopping, I received one such phone call. It was my sister telling me that my dad had had a stroke and was alive, yet unconscious. I did make it back in time to say my goodbyes. I have been blessed that way. But, I don’t think that I have ever felt as I did on the morning of ‘that’ call.
With the passing of the years, I have come to accept these ‘moments’ as part of the deal that comes with living abroad, and if anything, they serve as reminders of how fleeting life can be and how treasured the time we spend with those we love. And, ultimately, it is not all doom and gloom, for with a repertoire of memories to choose from we are transported, as if in a time vessel, to instances and occasions where those who have left seem as if to exist for eternity. ‘Memories’, said novelist Jennifer Armentrout, ‘even bittersweet, are better than nothing’, or are they?
Twenty-Eight year-old Evie, a resident of Dubai, in Annabel Kantaria’s novel, ‘Coming Home’ receives a phone call from her mum telling her that her dad has died, in his sleep, of heart failure. In shock and disbelief at the news - she’d only seen him in the summer and he’d been fine, even planning a visit to Dubai - she packs her bags, hops on the earliest plane and makes her way to the family home in Woodside, ‘a functional commuter town that couldn’t decide if it was part of South London or north-west Kent’.
Evie realises that she hasn’t been home during the winter in the six years she’s been away. She is quite unprepared for how cold it is and this gives the reader the first hint that this may only be the first of many more things that Evie is unprepared for during her stay home at this difficult time.
From the beginning of the novel, it is apparent that Evie does neither come from a happy home nor one that is forthcoming with its feelings. We discover the family tragedy of long ago that rendered Evie's mum as if ‘an iceberg’, and leading her to sum up their relationship as ‘an exchange of huge quantities of useless information in a literary ballet that meant little’. Her father, on the other hand, had, since she was eight years old, ‘not only been physically absent most of the time, but emotionally unavailable as well’. That summer though, he'd seemed changed, more interested in her life. With such intense, emotionally bottled relationships defining her upbringing, she wonders whether her father's death will be ‘the earthquake that triggers the tsunami’.
'They say every expat is running away from something. I don't want to believe it about myself but somewhere, in a dark place where I try never to look, I know it's probably true' -- Evie
The entire novel centres around what we choose to conjure up from our past and how we decide what memories to suppress as if they never happened. The family’s tragic past comes to light by means of Evie’s flashback conversations between her 8-year-old self and Miss Dawson, her grief counsellor. As the sessions progress, the reader not only learns the details of the accident but an uncomfortable realisation starts to emerge about the deeper, invisible, repercussions it has had on the individuals left in its aftermath.
Evie is a character wracked by a huge amount of guilt and blame. There is also a thin vein of fear that feeds her recollections which readers soon come to realise may stem from darker and sinister events she has witnessed in the past; Events that she conceals even from the trustworthy Miss Dawson.
What is most poignant, and interesting to follow, in the novel is that Evie feels responsible for her mum and that, come what may, protecting her mother is ‘tattooed on her soul’. However, contrary to what Evie thinks of her mum, the readers are introduced to an independent, strong-willed, if self-centred individual who knows exactly what she wants and goes about getting it. It worries Evie though that her mum seems to have moved on too quickly; arranging for a swift cremation, throwing out her dad’s belongings, putting in an offer for a new house and spending very long hours with the widower next door; All signs that her mum is possibly, yet again, running away from having to deal with loss and grief.
'My mother was all I had left, and she was the mistress - the guardian - of The Gap' -- Evie
As Evie goes through her father’s papers, she stumbles upon a long hidden secret that threatens to shatter everything she once held dear. A chance encounter with her high school sweetheart, Luca, adds the touch of romance needed to complete Kantaria’s novel as Evie enlists his assistance in uncovering more of the mystery surrounding her latest discovery. Soon, all secrets, are out in the open and it is left to Evie to decide how she will rebuild a life amongst the debris of the explosive revelations.
Annabel Kantaria is a British-trained editor and journalist and the former editor of the 'Emirates Woman' magazine based in Dubai. She has written prolifically for publications in the UK and across the Middle East and currently works as the 'Telegraph’s' Dubai-based ‘Expat’ blogger (see HERE). In 2013, she won the inaugural Montegrappa First Fiction Competition at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. ‘Coming Home’ is her debut novel.