Gurjinder Basran's second novel, Someone You Love Is Gone, features a supernatural supporting cast including a ghost, a reincarnated poet, a boy who channels the departed and hundreds of invisible levitating haikus.
There is even a Mason jar of dead poems interred in the back garden. Yet, at the heart of this book is a very this-worldly question: How do you work through loss?
In this multigenerational story set across three time periods, members of the current-day Sandhu family have migrated from Pakistan to India to Canada. At each fork in the road over this 50-year span, they have left behind homelands and loved ones. Sometimes the losses are tragic and cruel: a lover who takes his life, an autistic son sent away from his home. At others, they are gradual and occur in plain sight: a father fading away into a bottle, a daughter escaping into a Bible.
As in Gurjinder Basran's first book, Everything Was Goodbye, Someone You Love Is Gone is a story of a fractured South Asian family that reconciles with loss by forgetting about it. There is a sort of migratory approach to dealing with grief as moving on is conflated with moving forward. This severing with the past, however, never seems to lead to full closure. It's as if clocks stop moving as old unresolved feelings linger, memories persist. They become a vague pain that gnaws at the family like a phantom limb, or like an actual phantom in this story.
That is why Simran, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is stuck. Like many second-generation children of Punjabi immigrant parents, she has grown up in a household where decisions go unexplained and she is expected to do as she is told. Never one to blindly follow, she grows from a moody child into a conflicted adult – equal portions miserable and perspicacious, the two traits feed off each other. And now her mother, her last surviving parent, has died, but she cannot find solace in her mother's adage that "forgetting is the only thing that gets you through life." Even if she could forget and move on, she doesn't know in which direction she should turn.
Counselling fails to rescue her from her doldrums. So does retail therapy – a trip to Wal-Mart leads to her leafleting the cars of fellow shoppers with her mother's funeral flowers. She remembers the last time she truly felt free: during an extramarital affair. But that lover is also long gone and those memories only further estrange her from her husband and daughter. If only Simran could unravel the taxing mystery of how exactly she ended up here, perhaps she could again find a way forward.
To untangle herself from this web of confusion, Simran subconsciously summons a spirit guide, her dead mother. The matriarch shows little wear and tear from rolling in the grave because of watching her daughter fall apart at the seams. Like any good Punjabi mother, she immediately doles out a helping of tough love and chides her middle-aged daughter for acting like a mouse.
The story arc flows from there as Simran, with the occasional blunt commentary from her straight-talking mother, begins to piece together an art to living – of what to remember, what to forget and how to find meaning in between.
Loss is a dominant theme in migrant literature and there is a tendency to sentimentalize the past. There's often a suggestion that the troubles of uprooted characters could be resolved if only they had access to a time machine and a return-ticket home. Although it is debatable whether Someone You Love Is Gone falls squarely under this genre, Basran still contends with these issues because she is writing about immigrant characters. And to her credit, she doesn't let them off that easy. Although her characters may romanticize aspects about their homelands, she never suggests they would be better people if they lived in a more familiar setting. This allows her to write with an uncompromising honesty about her characters for who they are and avoid flattening them under the weight of ethnic stereotypes. If her characters are lost in their current world, it is because they, like the vast majority of humanity, are not at home in their own skins.
As a second-generation immigrant herself, Basran was raised in the same spaces occupied by her characters. Her inside knowledge shines in the best passages in this book, such as when a 10-year-old Simran accompanies her mother to a doctor's office and acts as her interpreter. The passage reveals the acute sense of intimidation her mother would have experienced on the visit, but also Simran's prodigious depth of awareness for a 10-year-old, nurtured by a childhood in which questioning adults (outside of her home) was the norm. When addressing the specialist as an equal, she senses his disturbance from her breach of an unspoken social order, but remains untroubled by it: "I can't tell if he's annoyed or intrigued by me, now that I'm ten and a half I am too old to be cute, and more like a stick insect, skinny legs, knotty bones, big teeth. I try to translate for Mother but she's already parroting in her broken English. She doesn't understand."
Basran writes in a deceptively simple style. There is no fat in her prose; Basran restrains herself from adding even a single extra sentence to paragraphs that can seem spare at times. While this discipline can make some passages seem underwhelming, it sustains the narrative flow and also sets the stage for poetic payoff via her arresting descriptions, such as when Simran sees her brother after a lengthy absence: "He stares at me with his surprising grey eyes that are as round as riverbed stones."
Writing about psychological states demands considerable skill from a writer in order to avoid the inner voices of characters from sounding self-absorbed or just boring. Someone You Love Is Gone avoids this on the most part, while serving up characters with whom we can empathize, even when we recognize unappealing glimpses of our own neurosis staring back at us. The ability alone to weave this moral complexity into her stories makes Gurjinder Basran a novelist worth reading.
Jagdeesh Mann (@jagdeeshmann) is a journalist based in Vancouver who has written for The Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, The Georgia Straight and other publications.