Belonging: Home Away from Home

by Isabel Huggan
ISBN: 0676975364

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A Review of: Belonging
by Sharon Abron Drache

The leap from memoir to fiction is not as large as most readers of both genres believe, and Isabel Huggan sets out to prove this in a highly idosyncratic collection, whose bulk, 15 passages, are memoir. Like a sledge hammer, three short stories tacked on at the end of Huggan's documentary odyssey endeavor to prove the significance of the close and fragile connection between the emotional responses to selective contemplation of the past and the stream of consciousness imaginings called fiction.
With the reader as witness, Belonging becomes a rigourous and brave shaping of remembrance to name and secure for Huggan and her readers that intensely private place she calls home.
While Belonging traces the travels of Isabel and her husband, Bob, as they move from country to country, the people and places Huggan recalls are framed by her fastidious awareness of the march of time, reminding readers that each minute we live, no matter where and with whom, becomes history and therefore the sacred trust of any recorder, be he/she a non-fiction or fiction wordsmith. A tall order!
Only in the final three short stories are the names of the protagonist couple fabricated, and the first two offerings especially, "The Window" and "Arnica" are unquestionably based on the travel experiences of Isabel and Bob that preceed the fiction segment.
The third story, "Starting with a Chair" is marginally different in that a simple piece of furniture evokes access to the fictional narrative, which is a compilation of selected memories showcased to illustrate how interconnected our lives are, especially when built around the same physical thing, in this case a rocking chair, passed on from one generation to the next-a deceptively simple concluding piece for Huggan's hybrid Belonging collection.
Like the symbolic rocking chair, the non-fiction portion begins with the shock of Isabel learning that Bob's work for an NGO will take their family to Kenya, and subsequently to the Philippines, and France. And after retiring, Bob also decides that he wishes to settle permanently in the foothills of the Cevennes mountains in the south of France. The shock for Isabel is entailed in leaving Canada, and the reader quickly discovers why all the places Isabel visits and resides in are destined to become home.
While home is clearly where the heart is, home is also most definitely Canada-the towns of Elmira, Ontario, where Isabel was born and raised, Belleville, where she and Bob lived for seven years, two years after they were married, and Ottawa where the couple spent several years before leaving behind Canada as their permanent residence in 1987.
Huggan writes: "And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed and you stop."
The Huggans' newest home in the south of France, Mas Blanc, which they purchased in 1993, is the choice of Huggan's Scottish-born husband to whom she has been married since 1970. However, after reading Belonging, I cannot attribute this choice to Bob alone, because implicit in Isabel's writings is that her most valued home is the couple's togetherness. Yet, in her 15 non-fiction entries Isabel nevers writes openly about the their closeness as a couple, though their love for each other jumps out at the reader in the three fiction entries at Belonging's conclusion.
It is obvious that Huggan owes much of her development as a writer to her marriage and the extensive travel the marriage has brought with it, but still, it is when she is utterly alone as a writer-in-residence in Hobart, Tasmania, that she experiences her truest sense of home.
At the end of this residency Huggan stayed for a week in a beach house belonging to a Canadian and English couple, both of them writers. She records: "The house, set on a rise overlooking a huge bay, has walls of glass, creating the sensation that even indoors you are part of the sky and the sea and that they are part of you. It is different from Mas Blanc-built of stone to protect you from the world rather than allowing it entry-as a dwelling could possibly be."
It is in this glass house that Huggan discovers a book of essays by a Buddhist priest, Kenko, who was also known by his layname Urabe no Kaneyoshi. Between 1330 and 1332, he pasted to the walls of his cottage 243 fragments of his view of the world, which were totally infused with his Buddhist beliefs referring to the impermanence of all things, the endless cycle of birth, growth and death, and the vanity of human achievements and posessions.
Huggan learns from Kenko the value of not imposing a pattern on experience and the importance of not transforming reality. Yet, between her many destinations as she has travelled the world, and in her quest for finding a safe haven to call home, she has tried to do the opposite, because of her obsessive need for naming, putting into words the innermost thoughts of her heart.
Belonging asserts proudly that Isabel Huggan's journey is Isabel Huggan's history and as her readers we are invited to share it. Certainly, this reader was mesmirized by her intimate and encompassing diary-the best part was I didn't even have to pack a suitcase.
While Huggan's life as described in Belonging is one of privilege and many blessings, her insatiable curiosity and cautiously crafted prose reminds her readers that we are all blessed, particularly as reflected in the final two sentences of her story, "Staring with a Chair": "Everything belongs right where it is. There is nothing in our lives that doesn't fit."

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