Homesick by Jennifer Croft

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Review by Annabel

Jennifer Croft’s name may ring a bell with you somewhere, but with a different hat on. As the translator of Olga Togaczuk’s Flights, she was co-winner of the 2018 International Booker Prize. As well as Polish and Ukrainian, she also works in Argentine Spanish, which is where Charco Press, the UK-based publisher of Latin-American literature in translation, comes in.

Croft originally wrote Homesick in Spanish as an illustrated memoir with photos, later published in English but not directly translated. Homesick now appears in English on Charco’s new ‘UnTranslated’ list, but as a novel, without the illustrations. It is presented as the coming-of-age story of the author, so more a work of auto-fiction which is slightly confusing­–I hope I’ve got that right! Not in dispute though is that Homesick is a stunning bildungsroman told in an idiosyncratic style of vignettes and snapshots ranging from a single paragraph to several pages long.

Amy is three years older than her sister Zoe. She has always looked out for her, even when she was five and Zoe was two, making sure she has a doll in the storm shelter when a tornado comes. Amy was given a polaroid camera by her grandparents, and documents Zoe’s life in particular with her photos.

Amy takes a picture of the little red suitcase Zoe uses to run away from home.

Zoe runs away from home at least once a week. She takes the dog and goes and sits beneath the pear tree that every year at the tail end of summer produces inedible pears that their dad picks up and throws away. The pear tree is in between the front yard and the backyard, a no man’s land, where Zoe believes that no-one will think to look for her.

The exact timing of most of the vignettes isn’t specified, but Zoe gets taken into hospital suffering from fits. It takes them time to work out what might be wrong with her, and Amy has to make do with taking photos of the dog for her while she is in hospital.

Zoe’s illness will come to dominate the next years of their lives, and their parents decide to take the girls out of school because the surgery Zoe needs is so expensive. Amy has been ahead of grade level in things like maths and her mom says the public schools won’t work for her. Amy teaches Zoe to read Dr Seuss.

Zoe comes out of hospital after surgery on Amy’s ninth birthday, and the girls continue to be home-schooled. Fuelled by a love of watching the ice-skating with Zoe, and some sibling rivalry over who they support – Zoe goes for the Ukranians, Amy the Russians – she develops a passion for the idea of learning Russian. Her parents find her a tutor, Sasha, a young Ukrainian student who comes to their house – and naturally, Amy, now a teen, falls for him. Sasha’s story won’t end happily sadly.

Meanwhile, Amy at 15 becomes the youngest honors student at Tulsa University where she studies under Professor Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, (who really taught there). As you might expect, she is treated a little as a mascot by the others, but after all that home-schooling, she is ready to spread her wings – it doesn’t always go well – leaving her childhood behind makes her homesick in more ways than one and Zoe is never far from her thoughts. It’s not until she graduates and travels in Europe that she can truly be free and find a home.

Told in the third person singular from Amy’s point of view, the vignettes are very much snapshots like Amy’s Polaroid photos. As in the quote above, each section’s headings could be the photo’s caption, while the text’s body provides its context. While the language isn’t complex, the depth of the sisters’ relationship is. Amy does adore Zoe, but she does finally react against all the attention her sister always gets once at university. These sections have such candour, which both moves and makes the reader uncomfortable. With plenty of blank pages – each vignette starts on the facing/recto page – this novel can be a one-sitting read. I like the vignette style when its done well, and here I could imagine some of their days in between the sections that weren’t documented. and I could also picture that wall of Polaroid photos in Amy’s room, which made me wonder about the photos in the original version.

It is lovely to support this book on the blog tour, and this is a excellent addition to their ‘UnTranslated’ list.

Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of the editors, and is glad to have discovered Charco Press this summer.

Jennifer Croft, Homesick (Charco, 2022). 978-1913867317, 219pp.,flapped paperback original.

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