The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The DescendantsThe Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings My rating: 4 of 5 stars She’s an asshole, he’s an ignoramus. Not really what I would have said a promising start for a novel, yet somehow I became invested in their story. In fact, at certain points I couldn’t put it down and I’m sure that is entirely due to the fact Joanie was SUCH an awful excuse for a wife (not to mention mother), and Matt King a truly pitiable excuse for a husband and father. Add to the mix their two kids, one a 17 year old ex-model and recovering drug-addict and the other a very odd ten year old with a penchant for talking dirty, and the whole thing makes for a scene you don’t want to watch but can’t quite turn away from. It’s darkly humorous and deeply, deeply tragic. The book gives away all the spoilers on the back cover before you begin, so no harm in retelling it here. Joanie, a beautiful, charismatic (but completely self-obsessed and immature) woman lies in a coma after a boating accident. While her husband (head-in-a-hole workaholic) comes to terms with his wife’s inevitable death, his eldest daughter confirms the suspicions he’d long been trying to deny: his wife had been having an affair. Against a backdrop of negotiations into the sale of inherited ancestral land in Hawai’i (which has more of a role to play in the plot than you might think), the story then centers around a road-trip Matt takes with his children to find his wife’s lover and bring him, ill-advisedly or not, to her bedside before they turn off the machines.

Since the entire plot is laid out from the first instance the story is less about what actually happens and more about the way people feel about what has happened, is happening, and is about to happen. This ought to be much more difficult to do than Kaui Hart Hemmings makes it seem – I prepared myself for long, flowery, over-indulgent reflective passages and implausible internal dialogues tacked onto nauseating flash-backs. Instead, the hopes, disappointments, anger and grief of each of the characters is somehow tethered, in brief snatches, to the mundane activities of the life which continues – albeit altered – as Joanie lies in a coma. Even Joanie herself is a larger than life character despite never uttering a word, thanks to the stilted memories conjured from the divergent perspectives of her family members. In a way it reads like a coming-of-age story. But rather the teenager daughters emerging into adulthood it is Matt emerging into himself. At first I didn’t like him – he seemed like a shell of a man. He could not articulate a single decent reason why he loved his wife, with whom he clearly shared very few interests. He could recount stories about private jokes they shared, but if asked to say what it all amounted to at the end of the day all he could put his finger on, repeatedly, was the sense that he felt comfortable around Joanie. Familiar. I wanted to throw my hands up in disgust, recalling more than once the saying about familiarity and the stuff it breeds – indeed, off Joanie went and had her affair. Whether it was her only indiscretion or one of many is never discussed nor important, and I’m not for a second contending that Matt deserved such ill-treatment from his wife regardless of his own transgressions, but for goodness sake, will he finally allow himself to feel something, even if it’s only the feeling of loss? That’s the beauty of this novel. About two thirds in, very subtly, a hint of a light goes on somewhere in the darkest crevices of Matt’s brain. He still can’t articulate anything for himself, god help the man, but at least he begins to recognise not only the depth of his broken-heartedness but the reason for it too. When he leans in to Joanie, lying serene in her coma, and declares with a ferocity of love that is totally new to him “…..” (spoiler), I felt like standing up and giving him (and Kaui Hart Hemmings) a big round of applause. View all my reviews

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