USEREVIEW 117 (Capsule): The Family Code
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.
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.”
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