FAMILY OF ORIGIN. By C.J. Hauser. Doubleday. 304 pages. $26.95.
In her viral essay, “The Crane Wife,” C.J. Hauser wrote, “There are worse things than not receiving love. There are sadder stories than this. There are species going extinct, and a planet warming. I told myself: Who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?”
This is a sentiment familiar to people coping with an overwhelming and endless cycle of bad news. This quote also echoes one of the themes of Hauser’s second novel, “Family of Origin.”
After their biologist father’s death, half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey go to his field station on an island off the Gulf Coast, where he and the other scientists, called Reversalists, have been studying a rare sea duck they believe proves evolution has begun running backward. There, the siblings must confront their fears that humanity’s best days are behind them and that they are the reason their father abandoned his family and the rest of the world as beyond saving.
Almost every character is refusing to adapt, grow or evolve with changing times. Elsa and Nolan’s father has been running away from familial friction their entire lives. The Reversalists have isolated themselves on this island away from millennials and a world they’ve given up on. Elsa, who thinks the planet and everyone in her life would be better off with her not in it, has hopes of settling Mars. For all of them, the options are to go back to an idealized “era of certainty” or leave all together — and both are ways of giving up.
This is a book heavily influenced by the current social climate, and yet the only specific cue to a time period is the desire of older people to escape from millennials. The Reversalists see them as “at best ... stupid, lazy, entitled narcissists who could not be trusted. At worst ... the whole of their generation were an evolutionary step backward for humanity.” This generic sentiment, held by one generation about another, also mirrors the specific instance of Elsa and Nolan’s parents ignoring traumatic events that lead to a family schism and leaving the children to ride the wave of repercussions on their own.
This is a captivating book, as intentional and finely crafted as a tightly wound clock. The main narrative is interspersed with flashbacks, and choices like the omission of quotation marks encourage careful reading and engagement with the book. And it’s easy to get swept away in Hauser’s beautiful prose. It feels like the science fiction of Michael Crichton with hints of thriller, and even Southern Gothic with its Gulf Coast setting and strange and twisty family histories and mysteries.
This is a dark book. Hauser makes her main themes — losing hope for the future in the face of the constant tragedies of the world, trying to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong and running away to a better time — crystal clear and unforced. Her hints at making the world great again are unmistakable, and it's easy to understand the impulse to run away.
Ultimately, this is a hopeful book. While Hauser at times expresses the darkest fears about the fate of the world, “Family of Origin” is a way for people to work through despair and heal from generational trauma. She writes: “There was always some good work to be done, so why not do it and fall asleep exhausted?”