Angela Meyer Reviews Kristin Henry

20 October 2012

The following chapters are blissfully peaceful. Jesse becomes right-hand man to Leon on the commune. It is the early 1970s. The people plant and work and sing together, ‘and first among their victories— / their kids had no word for ‘stranger’’. They cut themselves off, mainly, from the world, but Flannery keeps in touch with her Irish mother through letters, and through these letters we learn that although the protagonists are happy, Flannery has a few creeping doubts: ‘Sometimes I’m scared we may have bitten / off more than we can chew as usual’.

We have some creeping doubts, too, since Leon is so adamant to not discuss his past. And then Flannery begins to ask Jesse about whether he misses his homeland. Jesse doesn’t realise that Flannery might be expressing her own desires. The gap between Jesse and Flannery begins to widen, though he never really has been a good listener to her.

But they are blissful times. Henry does not treat the commune cynically; it really does work for a time, while Leon remains a figure of guidance and inspiration and not one of control. Jesse is ‘the steadfast,’

at the end of whose arms
there was always a job—
planting and plucking and
holding on.

And then there is their growing girl, Maille, who also carries the music in her. Music a source of happiness, hope, community, and of opportunity in the novel:

she sang a second language
made of notes so sweet
that sometimes for a minute
it stilled the hands of workers

Flannery has to assure her parents, when she writes, that Maille is getting a good education, that Maille is safe and happy. But the constant reassurance is in itself an unsettling clue to the reader. We start to hear about people leaving. The shine on Heartsong has begun to fade. And then there is an accident with a tractor, and it is telling that the woman, Sara, chooses not to bury her husband at Heartsong. ‘Instead she took him south / as quickly as she could / to his real family.’ This is an example of where the italics have a strong impact: they are Sara’s own words. It means that Heartsong, for her, has changed from a place of joy and belonging, to being separate from the real world, an illusion.

But so much time has passed and has been given to this place. We can’t help but wonder how anyone will slot back into the real world. What kind of work will they do? Will they get used to living in smaller spaces? Will they be overwhelmed? It is time for Leon to fess up to his past, and it is not what the reader might expect. And Jesse, really, does not want to know. He has already lost more than he should have. He has had his eyes closed for a while now, and has made some bad decisions.

All the Way Home is a highly accomplished verse novel, where each careful line reveals a depth of meaning about the characters and their choices. There is a strong momentum in the story, and empathy for the characters. There is not really abstraction (and it is much closer to a prose novel in this way) but there is space, mystery, and a sprinkling of honed, careful imagery, particularly to do with characters and their interactions, rather than the setting: Flannery’s ‘whisky laugh’, and later ‘the veins in her white neck / like ropes of blue lightning’; Leon’s hands, in which Flan and Jesse ‘had always found the tiny / hairline cracks along their lives’; Jesse’s eyes ‘glistening / through a fringe and whisker cloud’. In the end we might, too, open our eyes to given moments, the place we are in and the people in it, because through reading we become aware, like Jesse, of ‘Time’s game’: he knows that ‘every pound / of his pulse / means something’s changing.’

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About Angela Meyer

Angela Meyer is the author of a collection of flash fiction (Captives, Inkerman & Blunt), and has published stories in Best Australian Stories 2014, Island, Wet Ink, The Lifted Brow and other publications. She is currently working on a novel.


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