“Familiar” by J. Robert Lennon (2012) – 205 pages
Science Fiction and the paranormal are not my usual genres. Sure I’ve read “Brave New World”, “Fahrenheit 451”, “We”, “The Martian Chronicles” and a few others over the years, but that is about it. Now I can add “Familiar” to this short list, because “Familiar” is about parallel worlds.
Each year Elisa Macalester Brown leaves her husband Derek and son Sam to travel to her former home city of Madison, Wisconsin, and visit the grave of her other son Silas who was killed in a horrific car accident. As she is driving back to her new home in New York, all of a sudden a crack in her car’s windshield suddenly heals itself. Thus begins her journey into an alternative reality. When she arrives home she discovers that she is a few years older than she was and that both of her sons are alive. And thus the story begins.
Even though “Familiar” has this paranormal plot of perhaps a Twilight Zone episode, the novel is written in the style of intense minimalist realism. Throughout the novel we are in the mind of Elisa. We see everything through her eyes and with her perspective. There is the bare minimum of description of locales or of nature as we enter her obsession. She remembers vividly her former life, and can plainly recognize the differences between her new life and her former life. Her husband Derek is unlike the person he was before, her sons are not the same as they were, and she herself has changed dramatically. The changes that have occurred are not necessarily for the better, because “Familiar” is not a comforting novel. There are no happy memories, no humor, and little everyday fun.
“Familiar” is more of a psychological novel rather than speculative science fiction. It is all about Elisa confronting her new reality and comparing it with her old reality. In an afterword, J. Robert Lennon discusses 9/11/2011 and that writing “Familiar” was a way to address quite indirectly the aftereffects of September 11. The book “was going to be about the cognitive dissonance that traumatic events introduce into our minds – about the connections between the fragile constructions of the self and the chaotic world outside.”
What is my reaction to “Familiar”? First “Familiar” has an extremely original plot which I appreciated. While reading the novel, I missed a lot of the crutches that I usually use to relate to a story such as lush descriptions of place, humor, warmth, liveliness. Lennon has imagined a quite cold rigorous world for Elisa, not much fun. But I’m not ready to dismiss “Familiar”, because I believe this is the kind of novel that I will remember and think about for some time.