Jennifer Croft’s autobiographical novella, Homesick, has a fascinating history. The book started life in 2017 as a novel written in Spanish: Serpientes y escaleras, which means ‘Snakes and Ladders’ in English. Then, two years later, a reworked version of the book (written in English and titled ‘Homesick’) appeared in the US as a memoir, complete with photographs to illustrate the writer’s childhood. A third version, also called Homesick, has now been published in the UK by the Edinburgh-based publishers Charco Press; however, in this edition, which is presented as an English-language novella, the photographs have been removed. This is the version I’ll be discussing here – recently longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, along with Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, a novel I adored.
In essence, Homesick is a haunting, impressionistic novella written in brief, fragmentary vignettes – some comprising two or three lines, others two or three pages. Ostensibly a poignant, deeply moving portrayal of childhood, sisterhood and coming of age, the novella also touches on several related themes, including the emotional rollercoaster of first love, the pain of separation and the need to come to terms with change. Croft uses a relatively open, direct prose style here, leaving plenty of space between the short chapters. It’s a technique that fits neatly with the topics being explored, encouraging the reader to bring their own thoughts and impressions to this intimate story.
Central to the novella are Amy and Zoe, two inseparable sisters living in Oklahoma with their parents in the late 1980s/early ‘90s. Amy, the elder of the two siblings by three years, is naturally gifted, a well-organised perfectionist with a love of photography and languages. However, while Zoe enjoys the protection and stimulation Amy provides, her life is dictated by a frightening sequence of seizures, thought to be caused by a rare but benign brain tumour. Consequently, the girls are home-schooled from a relatively young age, fostering an atmosphere of intense closeness between the sisters and a shared passion for Eastern European figure-skaters and the languages they speak.
This secluded, protective environment cultivates a sense of mutual dependence between the girls, who share childhood secrets and ways of communicating with one another that are hidden from their parents. These feelings are intensified when both girls fall in love with Sasha, the young languages student hired to teach Amy Russian and Zoe Ukrainian, inspired by their devotion to the figure skaters of their dreams.
She [Amy] takes stock of the secrets between them: on her side, the secret stash of photographs that she still keeps; her secrets about Sasha, which now number in the dozens; her secret future; her secret grief. […] Subtract the secret rooms that Amy couldn’t access at the hospital, where things were done to Zoe that Amy cannot ever know. Subtract the lies that Zoe might be telling Amy, too, in the same way that she lied to protect her earlier that night. (p. 100)
One of the most interesting aspects of this novella is Croft’s exploration of the impact of a child’s chronic illness on the other members of their family, particularly a sibling. As Amy tries to come to terms with her sister’s illness, it raises several questions in her mind. She looks for clues about the origin of Zoe’s tumour in the various photographs she has taken, wondering too whether her own brain has been affected.
It seems impossible that Zoe got a tumor while Amy did not. The girls almost always get sick at the same time: chicken pox, strep throat, colds. Then it’s fun because their dad reads them stories like the one about the duck that turns into a swan and their mom brings them glasses of Tang. Unless Amy does have a brain tumor but no one knows yet. In that case her personality might already be changing. In that case she might already be becoming a completely different person, but nobody has noticed, and Amy can’t notice because it’s her brain that’s getting switched. (p. 46)
In the mid-‘90s, when Amy is in her teens, the girls are struck by a series of tragedies, each of which has a profound impact, particularly on Amy. Firstly, the city is rocked by the Oklahoma bombing, a massacre that kills and injuries several hundred; then one of Amy’s beloved figure-skaters dies suddenly of a heart attack at the age of twenty-eight; and finally, the loss of a loved one shatters Amy’s world. Shortly afterwards, Amy leaves home at fifteen to begin her studies at the University of Tulsa, separating her from Zoe and the security of home. It’s a risky move for the teenager, opening up a world of possibilities for her education while also exposing her vulnerabilities at a highly traumatic time.
Without Zoe, Amy is lost; she has little sense of how to ‘be’ with other people and interact. In short, her world feels destabilised and unbalanced, exacerbated by a profound sense of loss. At a certain point in the narrative, the focus begins to shift, and we realise that we are witnessing the fallout from these tragedies. As Amy struggles to deal with grief, severe depression exerts its grip, ushering in a period of experimentation with various coping mechanisms to dull the pain – alcohol, painkillers and self-harming – culminating in a cry for help that lands her in hospital.
Sometimes she [Amy] claws at the concrete. Sometimes all her muscles tense up so tight she gets terrified because what if she can never move again. She listens to the cars go by and tests out her fingers and wraps her hand around her throat. (p. 110)
Meanwhile, Zoe misses her sister terribly. But when she runs away from home to stay with Amy, her seizures soon worsen, prompting a return to home.
While the book mostly focuses on the girls’ childhood and adolescence, it closes with a short section giving brief, intermittent glimpses of Amy from her late teens to mid-thirties. Here we see a more grounded Amy as she pursues her desire to travel, moving through various European cities, reflecting on memories of Zoe and learning languages as she goes. There is some lovely evocative writing here, very much in keeping with Amy’s development and the challenges she has overcome.
2008, summer. Amy’s third trip to Berlin. He is more beautiful than she remembered, leaning in against the bar, his male jaw delicate, resting in his hand. In the light of the light bulbs the tattoo of the flourishing tree on his arm is almost incandescent. Amy goes straight to him, leaning in over the bar to kiss his smooth warm cheek. (p. 201)
While the fragmentary style and choice of a third-person narrative might not be to every reader’s taste (in truth, it’s a book I liked and admired rather than loved due to this slight distancing effect), there’s no denying the moving nature of the sisters’ story. Homesick is a thoughtful, intimate book, a sensitive portrayal of sisterhood, childhood illness and the devastation of personal loss, eloquently expressed in Croft’s simple, direct prose.