Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

When you were little, did you create alternate lives for yourself? I did. I had an entire imaginary world where I played a completely different person than I was in real life. I thoroughly enjoyed make-believe. But these imaginings were harmless and never permanent. In Amity Gaige's thought-provoking new novel, Schroder, the main character goes far beyond my childhood pretending and creates a completely new identity, slipping into it nearly seamlessly, and wearing it more comfortably than his actual identity.  So who is he really?  Is he the new created persona or is he the person whose skin he's trying to shed or will he forever uncomfortably and uneasily carry both of these people together in himself?

At the outset of the novel, he is in jail awaiting sentencing for the kidnapping of his beloved six year old daughter, Meadow, while in the midst of a heated custody battle and a prolonged divorce. Writing a letter to his estranged wife to explain his actions and in the hopes that offering his version of the truth will mitigate his punishment, the novel is his explanation of his life, the reason behind the assumption of his new identity, and what ultimately made him take Meadow and keep running. And as his story unspools, despite the fact that there's no doubt that he did in fact steal away his daughter, the reader feels sympathy with his desperation over the dwindling amount of time that this former stay at home dad now gets to spend with the child who was once a focus of his days. But just as his actions start to seem, in some small way, understandable, and his sadly naive ignorance of the impact of his separation becomes clear, just as these things strike the reader, tiny cracks start to show in his story and doubts start to creep in.

When Erik Schroder was five, he held his father's hand as they walked out of East Germany forever. They made their way to the US where he was tormented by the other kids in his working class neighborhood. It was as a young teenager escaping from this unfortunate background that he first created the persona of Eric Kennedy, a shirt-tail relative of "those Kennedys" and hailing from a quaint seaside town in Massachusetts in order to fit in to a summer camp. And because of the different way in which he was treated as the all-American Eric than as the German refugee Erik, he continued the ruse, applying to college and for a Pell Grant as Eric Kennedy. And it is as a Kennedy that he meets and woos future wife Laura. It is Eric Kennedy who she thinks she's married and with whom she has daughter Meadow. And it is Eric Kennedy who steals Meadow away.  But it is Erik Schroder, unmasked and exposed, who is the fugitive and finally the felon awaiting trial and sentencing.

He manages to conceal the truth of his background and his identity as Erik Schroder from everyone around him, as truly becoming Eric Kennedy as he possibly could. Is he truly misunderstood or is he a master manipulator? It is his complete and total subterfuge that will compound the terrible error of his claimed spur of the moment decision to flee with Meadow. And this is where the reader must question his account of events. If his entire life and identity is based on lies and fraud, is a completely artificial construct, just exactly how much of his story and his justifications for the otherwise reprehensible action of kidnap can be believed? Is his week on the run with Meadow truly spur of the moment or was it calculated? Is he a distraught doting father, desperate for more time with his daughter like he claims or is there something else behind his flight?

It's hard to write a convincing unreliable narrator but Gaige manages to do just that and to do it beautifully. Eric seemed so sincere and even surprised by his own actions in the beginning, and yet... Despite the terrible crime he's committed, he never stops being at least a little convincing, a little charming, always a tiny shred of victim to him. And that's an impressive accomplishment for sure. Eric/Erik's letter to Laura can be meandering but the format offers an insight into the random and unfinished way in which his mind works and which, at least according to his truth, is one of the reasons she left him, so it ends up working despite the digressions, academic interjections, and footnotes. A fascinating look at the issue of identity and just how much of ourselves we can create for others before we've crossed a line, this novel will keep the reader thinking and still deciding on the extent of Schroder's guilt long after the end.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds so intriguing - I love a good unreliable narrator. I will definitely look for this title.


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