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Distantly Related to Freud.



Cormorant Books


"Observing people when they didn't know they were being watched was a favourite pastime of mine," says Ellen, the precocious young narrator in Ann Charney's beautifully written novel Distantly Related to Freud. "But what started as a game soon turned into a strategy for approaching the unknown--see them before they see you."

Charney's novel embodies the authentic feeling of a memoir, an elegant chronicle of Ellen's departure from girlhood to a brief stint as a teenage femme fatal, and later, an aspiring writer. Her talent for observation remains vital to the young narrator's inner life, giving her protection from the uncertainty along the journey to becoming a woman.

In Montreal during the 1950s, eight-year-old Ellen is raised in a matriarchal household ruled by her overprotective Aunt Celia and her widowed mother, immigrants from war-ravaged Poland. Life is filled with unknowns--about the circumstances behind her father's death, but also about the Central European refugees who suddenly appear at her door, boarders her mother takes in to make ends meet.

Ellen is captivated by their anguish, knowing their wartime experience is one that her own family narrowly escaped. From the hushed tones of conversations in their mother tongue she learns the role language plays in transmitting and concealing truths. "The odd words I caught," she explains after listening to the refugees, "were like tears in a curtain permitting a brief glimpse into a world ... where no object was neutral, no person innocent, and no phrase simply what it appeared to be."

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is also in the family bloodline. But intellectual capital isn't helpful in the New World, especially for a family of women. "It doesn't matter if you were the Queen of Sheba before you came here," remarks her friend's mother, Magda, caustically speaking about Canadians' mentality toward foreigners.

While Freud's legacy and her family's analytic obsessiveness constrict her every move, Ellen remains freethinking, especially in her arguably modern attitude toward sex. "Sex was power, as long as you kept your head," the teenaged Ellen promptly declares after a first, if not hapless, attempt at lovemaking.

Charney has created a powerful and surprising coming of age story about a girl who must wrestle against the social and historical forces threatening to shape her. And yet she remains unafraid of losing her innocence, gracefully carving out her own distinct future.

Deborah Ostrovsky is a freelance writer living in Montreal.

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Author:Ostrovsky, Deborah
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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