To Whom It May Concern, the second novel from Ottawa-born author Priscila Uppal, has attracted only modest critical attention since its release in January. With its themes of family and parenting — coupled with an exploration of some of the consequences of multi-cultural marriage — it invites comparison with the popular Good To A Fault, by Marina Endicott. That book also received relatively little critical attention until it showed up on the 2008 Giller Prize shortlist — and it has kept popping up on Canadian bestseller lists ever since.
I have a theory about why this is so: readers who appreciate novels about family and parenting (read: thoughtful, mature women — the majority of novel readers generally) are grossly under-represented in the ranks of editors who assign books for review and the people who end up writing those reviews. Word about books like these spread through word of mouth and book clubs; they acquire an audience of their own.
The parent in To Whom It May Concern is Hardev Dange. Indian-born, he used to be The Water King — working for the Canadian International Development Agency, he roamed the world building hydro-electric projects. For the last 15 years, he has been confined to a wheelchair, apparently the result of an accident sustained at one of those worksites.
Hardev’s wife left him shortly after that, taking his two daughters with her, but leaving his son behind — she couldn’t abide the thought of living with the shell of the man she knew and loved. (She does show up in the book, but only peripherally.) Compounding Hardev’s problems, his disability benefits are shrinking at the same time that his neighborhood in Ottawa is being redeveloped. He is behind on his mortgage payments and the house that has been his home for more than 25 years is about to be foreclosed (this part is turning out to be more topical than author Uppal contemplated, unfortunately).
His pleasures are few. Ideally, a homecare worker who performs adequately — that is frequently a challenge. Monitoring the sounds of the construction around him (he is a builder, after all). Watching and making notes on the television news. And most important of all, his children, who still return home for holidays and a restricted version of festival: “Holidays are family days, special days, the house is once again filled with his children.” The holiday meal, alas, is usually brought-in pizza for the kids and shake-and-bake chicken and frozen vegetables for Hardev (he has digestion issues as well) but the seasonal celebrations are still the only thing to which he looks forward. He even keeps a “map” that shows the homecare worker where to put the Christmas decorations that fill up the main floor in that season.
If Hardev lives for his family, his three children live principally in the hope of escaping it.
Eldest daughter, Birendra, figures the only way out is marriage, ideally to someone employed in Canada’s Foreign Affairs department who will go through a series of posts involving overseas residence, far away from both her parents and siblings. In the opening pages of the novel, it seems she has succeeded — she introduces her new fiance, Victor, who meets all of the above criteria. There will be tension, however. She dislikes family enough that she wants no part of children; the clear implication is that Victor (and his family) don’t share that view.
Hardev’s son, Emile, still lives with him but the two frequently go weeks without speaking to each other. Emile is a Master’s student studying curses and mythology — his goal is a PhD fellowship somewhere else, say Berkley, that will take him away from all this. Emile has sexual identity issues that add to his confusion. And his estrangement with his family extends to the rest of the world as well as he erects barriers that make sure he has few friends.
The youngest daughter, Dorothy, has, in a sense, already achieved her escape. The family realized at age two that she was deaf — while highly proficient in sign language and lip-reading (perhaps conveniently too proficient, from this reader’s point of view), she too lives in her own isolated world. A student about to graduate from a special ed high school, she also is a frequent visitor to SoundScape, a local, loud noise bar. As Dorothy says, she cannot hear but she is a good listener. At SoundScape, she specializes in befriending men and getting them to tell her a tragic story — only one — which she carefully documents in an ongoing journal.
Add in some of the multicultural issues (Hardev’s estranged wife is French-Canadian) and you have a not very cheery bunch — hardly the raw material for an exploration of family and parenting. Uppal’s point, however, is that there is a dialectic to this all, that the bonds of kinship can never be cut, that whatever the desire to escape, there are even more powerful forces keeping the family together.
To make this work, as the novel comes to a close, the author has to pull some questionable strings. It turns out some of the things the reader has been told are not true. There are books with unreliable (or even lying) narrators who make this work — but they are few. I am far more likely to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling that the author has abused my trust and resenting that. Uppal falls somewhere between those two extremes.
In the final analysis, I did not think this book worked — but don’t let that opinion dissuade you. I reached the same conclusion with Good To A Fault and other readers, including the Giller Prize jury, obviously reached a different one. If you have read the Endicott book and liked it, I suspect investing the time in this book is well worth your while. By the same token, if you found Good To A Fault wanting, I think you can probably safely give To Whom It may Concern a miss.