My surname doesn't hint at my Eastern European ancestry, but my mother's side of the family is thoroughly Czech. So whatever it is in my background that attracts me to kolache, those delectable pastries that signify "family reunion" to me, drew me as well to Scott Driscoll's debut novel, "Better You Go Home." A Seattle writer and writing instructor, Driscoll also has Czech roots, and this work of fiction leans on autobiography for inspiration.
The novel is set in the mid-1990s, post-Velvet Revolution, when Charles (Chico) Lenoch, a city attorney in a suburban municipality in King County, discovers that he has an older half-sister he never knew about who is living in the Czech Republic.
In itself, this would be intriguing news, but in Chico's case, it is something more. He is diabetic and his kidneys are failing. His doctors have advised him that he needs a transplant. So far he has found no one in his family who is a good match, but perhaps Anezka, this sibling who grew up half a world away behind the Iron Curtain and who doesn't even know of his existence, could be persuaded to undergo testing as a potential organ donor.
But first, he has to locate her. And that leads to Chico's acquaintance with Milada Kotyza, a Czech anesthesiologist who grew up in the village - actually, on the very farm - that Chico's father left behind when he emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States as a teenager in 1938. World War II and subsequent Communist rule have caused major displacements of family and disruptions of traditional lineages of property ownership, so Milada offers to serve as his guide. While her help does not come with a pricetag, some expectations are implied.
Milada cautions Chico that he must tread lightly, for although the old form of government has officially been overthrown, many of the people who had been Communist functionaries at the local level are still the people in power, and their oppressive tactics have changed little. If Chico comes in and upsets the apple cart, there will likely be consequences.
But does a man with a ticking time bomb pay attention to social niceties?
As Chico uncovers the unsettling details behind his family's departure from their ancestral land, he finds it increasingly hard to abide by customs that still seem to prevail. And frustration builds as he gradually realizes that there's a big difference between locating - and reaching - his long-lost sister.
"Better You Go Home" effectively captures our American hubris and naiveté in encountering cultures other than our own. Driscoll sprinkles Czech language liberally throughout the text without always bothering to translate - enough to make us know that we have traveled to an alien place with exotic pronunciations and bewildering names and powerful historical undercurrents that we are ill-equipped to understand. And yet, that history is indelibly carved into the ways people think, act and feel.
Rich in symbolism, rife with suspense, this is a fascinating story about family and identity.
FIND THE BOOK
"Better You Go Home," by Scott Driscoll, Coffeetown Press, 236 pp, $13.95
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com