Published twenty years ago (1998), Childhood by André Alexis, continues to loom large in my imagination. Childhood is told through the eyes of Thomas MacMillan. When the story begins, Thomas is a middle-aged man contemplating loss. He notes that it has been “six months since my mother died; a shade less since Henry passed.” Thomas, the narrator, has been brooding and decides:
Perhaps writing is the discipline I need.
So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning.
The “you” in the story is Marya, the woman he loves, a woman we never meet. He writes about memories as mysterious as childhood itself, their clarity elusive.
We meet the child Thomas in Pretoria living with his grandmother, and we come to understand a bit about his loneliness and the cerebral world in which he lives, notwithstanding his deliciously whimsical interpretations of the external world.
After his “cantankerous” grandmother, Mrs. Edna MacMillan—retired school teacher and leader of the ill-fated “The Dickens Society of Lambton County”—dies, Thomas meets his mother for the first time. He’s been living with a neighbour for two weeks. He’s ten years old.
She knocked at the door. I answered.
In a soft voice, the first word I heard her speak, she said
and leaned forward to hold me. Though it was unpleasant, I allowed myself to be enveloped.
–We have to go, she said.
Pretoria is left behind and a car trip to Montreal begins. This is when he tells us that his “small world splintered.” It is an unusual and disorienting journey that ends, not in Montreal, but Ottawa, at 77 Cooper, a rambling three-story house that includes a library, a laboratory, and Henry Wing. On this convergence of mother, Henry, and love, Thomas strives to understand life and himself. About understanding his mother, Katarina (Kata) MacMillan, he concludes:
So, of the woman who whelped me, I now a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don’t know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned.…
Mind you, I can barely scratch the surface of “Who am I?” either.
The structure of Childhood is circular. At the conclusion, the adult narrator Thomas writes from a desk at 77 Cooper:
…I’ve come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through the ground. (I mean, Time is the ground, but my analogy is weak.)
Soon, there’s a contradiction, as happens in life:
Time, which isn’t like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I’ve led.
I will have thousands of childhoods before time is done.
He says that he will “begin another retrospective when I must.”
Childhood takes us on a poignant journey through memory, yielding shifts, distortions, and truths. A thesis could be written about what is largely unsaid—the impact of the immigrant experience, the mystery of loss, the lack of physical affection, abandonment and reclamation—the things written between the lines.
For the writers among us, Childhood, is the best example I can think of for a circular story structure. This book is not memoir, although André Alexis grew up on Pretoria and lives in Ottawa, which gives depth to the specific, nuanced details in the fictional novel. The third thing to look for as you read is how the author moves expertly between adult and child so that in the end we see the child still residing in the man.
Available through your local bookstore or online: Childhood