Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini
Lisa Allen-Agostini’s Burt award winning book Home Home is a wrenching read, and yet a hopeful one. It’s tough at first as it drops you right in to 14-year old protagonist and narrator Kayla’s post-suicide-attempt-recovery. She’s in Edmonton, Canada to heal in a way she cannot Home Home in Trinidad where the empathy toward mental illness and suicide and otherness generally (the aunt she lives with in Canada is a lesbian in exile) is comparably low. When we meet her she’s having a panic attack over bus routes. You may get exasperated with her, I’m looking at you my Caribbean people (because, yes, you might find her mopey and self-indulgent), but hang in there. Hanging in her headspace will, if you are open to it, give you valuable insight to what living with chronic mental illness – in this particular case anxiety and depression – is like. For a teen/young adult reader with these issues it can also be a much-needed reminder that, they are not alone.
The book tackles these heady and heavy issues (mental health, lesbianism, race, differentness, acceptance, young love, parent-child conflict, homophobia, first v. developing world issues) with candour, quintessential Caribbean humour (“No, girl, you’re not dying”), and, at the same time, care. Kudos to the writer for making this an engaging read – the verbal and non-verbal conversational beats during the interaction in person and by skype among the teens was particularly delightful and realistic.
Okay, I’ll admit some of the characters can feel a bit too perfect – Akilah, Aunt Jillian and her boo Julie – and some of the characters a bit too demonized – Kayla’s mother – but the author does work to balance it out and it’s important to remember that as a first person account, this is all about perspective; we are on Kayla’s journey and are not necessarily seeing the people around her fully realized but in terms of how she sees them and what’s important to her. Does Akilah have any problems of her own? Who knows? But she’s always there, always concerned whenever Kayla needs her. We do get glimpses of the other sides of Jillian and Julie and it is Julie who helps Kayla see another side of her homophobic (by way of societal conditioning) mother, Cynthia. As for her love interest and his problematic dad, what we get mostly is that he’s lovely (the moments between them are lovely, just this side of too perfect, minus her meltdown in the restaurant at their first meeting) and that his dad is problematic (but still a dad).
Which reminds me, I like that Home Home centres otherness or should I say exoticness, and digs in to the complexities of identities and relationships in ways that I find refreshingly honest and nuanced – an example from the sub-plots being how a privileged and tone deaf white man (the love interest’s dad) marries a black Jamaican woman and has a biracial son (the love interest) and ‘exotic’ friends (Jillian and Julie, both women of colour) and is still as blind and tone deaf as ever – like literally he is the answer to anyone who has ever said I can’t be racist I have a black friend or dated a black whatever or I don’t see colour – and at the same time, he’s not written off as the bad guy.
In fact, this is not a book that writes any one off – even the most damaged. General, I really do love the relational and conversational beats in the interactions – there’s a naturalness to them and layers, also the alternating heft and lightness that mark interactions and make them feel real. I really took notice of this during the interaction with her aunt when Kayla started coming out of the darkness following her meltdown all the way through to that last interaction with Julie, but it was most deftly handled during the free flowing getting to know each other conversation between the teens. Fair warning, in that interaction the teens rag on Trinidad quite a bit – the violence, the unreliability of the utilities, the flawed educational system, the aforementioned lack of openness to difference – and Edmonton, Canada (apart from being very white-washed) gets off comparatively easy. But this is consistent with the book’s efforts to contrast her old physical and emotional world (which feels confining to her) with her new one, and there is enough nuance to remind us that sometimes distance helps us heal, that sometimes we love the things we hate and hate the things we love (it’s complicated – and there is no richer example of that than Kayla’s relationship with her mother).
Her mother is familiar. “Sounds strange to say because I am an only child, but I was never my mother’s favourite.” Cynthia – which she calls her mother in her head whenever her annoyance at her bleeds through – loves her daughter but she can’t provide the love and care her daughter needs to weather a storm she is not equipped to deal with – she is very much of the get on with it variety of Caribbean motherhood (and it is not her fault, it just is). If we’re honest, we Caribbean people have to acknowledge that the Caribbean can be a challenging place for someone struggling in the ways Kayla is – and that too is familiar.
Allen-Agostini’s descriptions of the emotional void she slipped in to before her suicide attempt and of the ways the world overwhelms her, of the rough climb out of her own head is expertly handled – so well done in fact that if you’re going through it, any variation of it, there are times you might find the book too close for comfort. But you’ll pick it up again and you won’t be disappointed.
Other plus, it’s a compact read and, though exposition heavy early on, an unexpectedly buoyant one once the narrative voice settles or you settle in to it, and you get past the first few chapters.
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