USEREVIEW 117 (Capsule): The Family Code

Hollay Ghadery/ April 19, 2023/ Book Review, Capsule Review

Wayne Ng
The Family Code (Guernica Editions, 2023)
ISBN 978-1-77183-793-4 | 316 pp | $25 CAD | BUY Here


The Family Code by Wayne Ng is a riveting and heart-wrenching story of inter-generational trauma that pivots around Hannah and her young son, Axel. Hannah and Axel live in poverty and are both victims of abuse: Hannah, at the hands of her father and partners; Axel, at the hands of his mother. Interestingly, the novel is narrated by both Hannah and Axel, which not only forces us into the head space of these complex characters, but showcases Ng’s ingenious knack for character and voice, which we can also see in his award-winning novel, Letters to Johnny. Hannah is tough, irreverent, selfish and infuriating, the pain of her past making her blind to the needs of her children. In addition to Axel, Hannah has a daughter who is only briefly in the novel, since she is put into foster care near the beginning. Axel, Hannah’s remaining child, is kind, smart, strong and sensitive, and he takes the brunt of his mother’s anger at the world. 

Ng’s professional experience as a social worker and skills as a writer are clear in the depth he brings to his characters, especially Hannah, who is easy to hate but harder to try to understand. Harder still for us to try to reconcile our feelings of sympathy for her and all she has endured with the unforgivable way in which she treats her son. Yet through Ng’s sophisticated, clear-eyed and compassionate writing and world-building, he insists that we try. The result is an unforgettable book that begs more questions than answers, and asks us to exercise our humanity. 

Recommended excerpt:

I love how this small excerpt (p. 265) shows Axel’s conflicting feelings toward his mother; how he loves her and wants to protect her, but is also hyper-aware of her moods, a common trait in children who are abused: “Mom told me to grab some cookies like she wanted me to go away. Something was going to happen. The fudge was on a nearby table and I wanted to go get some, but Mom looked scared and I didn’t want to leave her.”

Hollay Ghadery is a writer living in rural Ontario on Anishinaabe land. She has her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including Grain, Room, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and The Malahat Review. Her memoir on mixed-race identity and mental health, Fuse, came out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in spring 2021. Her debut collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, is due out in spring 2023 with Radiant Press, and her collection of short stories, Widow Fantasies, is set to be released with Gordon Hill Press in spring 2024.

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