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book review
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  • Title: The Homecoming
  • Author: Andrew Pyper
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 353
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Heidi Pyper/Supplied

On both the page and in the living world, the genre of funereal family drama is one from which outrageous histories are often mined, death like a diary opened to the stormiest part, secrets liberated and finally told. The framework is universal enough that even the most obvious tropes make for good stories. Grief is a familiar place. Grief as a genre of fiction is, too.

But in Andrew Pyper’s latest novel (his seventh), The Homecoming, expectations of how families mourn are thrashed into omnifarious detours with such maniacal, frazzled, horrifying ferocity one assumes the book was written beneath a full moon.

After the death of their often absent and emotionally unavailable father, the Seattle-based Quinlan siblings – narrator Aaron, a surgeon left traumatized by the horrors of working in a conflict zone, and his sisters Bridge, a teenager 22 years younger than him, and Franny, a recovering heroin user mourning the loss of her own young son – and their mother are hauled off in limousines. Upon arriving at their father’s quietly owned estate, called Belfountain, the Quinlans learn that in order to receive their $30-million inheritance, they must remain on the property without their phones or any outside contact for a full month. Shortly after, an apathetic lawyer leaves them to begin the residency they didn’t ask for, and another family arrives, for the same reason. Unbeknownst to the first Quinlan clan, there is a second, fathered and absently half-raised by the same man. “’All those years we thought he was ours,’ says [Aaron’s mother], ‘he was yours, too.’” What ensues is a thriller of ominous betrayal that dips into paranoia and the paranormal as the Quinlans learn the truth of where they are and where they came from. It’s part Brady Bunch, part Survivor, part nightmare.

“Families teach us who we are,” Aaron says. “That’s what the kids’ movies I watched growing up and the sappy commercials they air over the holidays tell us. Family binds us. It’s the download for our politics and faith software. The way to see yourself more truly than any mirror. And maybe it is all that. But I would define it as something else. A family is a group of people who have different versions of the same experience.”

Indeed, the Quinlans – both factions of them – go through their stay at Belfountain having the same dream every night and comparing notes the next day, examining the similarities in how their separate lives shook out.

As the family cohabitates, slithering between cohesion as a united front and drawing suspicious lines to divide the two sides, demons come out of the woods. Are they ghosts? Intrusions of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of Aaron’s stint overseas? Hallucinations? At one point Aaron tries to fight evil with a cheese knife. “From out of the forest, something howls.” The metaphors abound. Sadness comes second to survival, as the Quinlan family is sequestered in a waking nightmare orchestrated by a modest but sinister battalion that devastates their identities by razing their pasts.

Pyper’s petrifying imagination comes through in the details – an emergency tracheotomy performed with an X-Acto blade pulled from a tackle box, a balloon filled with the breath of Aaron’s recently deceased nephew, deflated as an act of mourning. His penchant for stretching the reader’s intellectual capacity for betrayal is showcased by the unfeeling swiftness with which he depicts abandonment. (As Aaron puts it, “There’s a category of fear that denies you the air to scream.” It’s true. At page 202, expletives flew from my mouth in a whisper.)

The Homecoming creates a battle between the reader’s faith in what they know about their own histories and the leery possibility of treachery emerging out of nowhere, as it does for the Quinlan family. By the time the characters surrender to psychological terror, the reader has relinquished whatever idea of security they had before beginning the book. Pyper’s technique – horror diffused through interpersonal micro-treasons – ensures that when Aaron’s mother asks, “What is a self, other than a past?”, one’s existential foundation has been so shaken that the story’s conspiratorial extremes feel as if they’re already happening to us.

In a pattern that becomes formulaic but is rendered forgivable by the unforeseen calamity that builds as a result; nearly every chapter ends with a shocking cliff-hanger. But perhaps this is less a writerly blueprint than it is a demonstration of Pyper’s craftmanship knowing no limit when it comes to making the reader confront their own inescapable fears.

As Bridge, the story’s emergent, wise-beyond-her-years hero, tells her much older siblings, “Every fairy tale needs monsters.”

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