Book review: A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

We all need family.

Whether it’s flesh or found, family is the glue that binds to a very special sense of time and place, which gives us a place of unconditional belonging and which helps us to make sense of the world.

It may not always be an idyllic place to be, and even the best ones have a certain glorious dysfunctionality to them, but we need them, a truism of life that finds an evocative telling in Alecia McKenzie’s novel, A Million Aunties.

Told as a series of character-centric chapters with one leading neatly into the next, all of them tales unto themselves in a sense but all very much part of a greater storytelling whole, A Million Aunties is a celebration of the highs and lows, the joys and the sadness, the comfort and the irritation of family in all its many found and flesh forms.

It is centred, if indeed a novel made of many interconnected parts, can be centred on Chris, an artist of significant success who heads back to is mother’s homeland of Jamaica from New York City, hoping to find some healing for a soul plunged deep into almost inescapable grief by profound personal tragedy.

He has no real idea what he will find there since visits back to Jamaica were near-to-nonexistent once his mother emigrated to the United States, but he knows he has to go, find his agent Stephen’s Auntie Della, with whom he’ll stay, and paint his way out of the existential hell in which he finds himself.

Chris smiled in recognition. That was Stephen. Agent, facilitator, man who gets things done and never takes no for an answer. Christopher had once asked him where his unrelenting energy came from and he had given credit to the woman [Auntie Della] in this luminous room. ‘When I was growing up, her favourite commandment was ‘find a way’ when I said I couldn’t do anything. Used to drive me nuts.’ (PP. 9-10)

He finds himself painting flowers over and over and over again, a product of the fact that he was never very good at rendering them, but also because they are real and tangible link to the person he has lost, a way of finding and relinking himself to a part of himself he has lost.

Auntie Della, who raised Stephen after he lost his parents in tragic circumstances, runs a nursery, further cementing the links to plants and it is she, and a host of people connected to her and Stephen and the community in which they live that become a found family of sorts for Chris who finds that while he may have lost the greatest and most meaningful connection of his life, it is possible for him to find some real sense of belonging to others again.

As A Million Aunties progresses in ways touching, funny, and hesitantly hopeful, and we read the stories of Auntie Della, Auntie Vera who lives down the street, local furcoat-wearing identity Miss Pretty, Chris’s Vietnam vet dad and he and Stephen’s artist friend Féliciane and her partner Leroy, we come to appreciate just how deeply we all need the connection and belonging of family, even if life has blinded us to how much it means and matters to us.

It is quite apparent that Chris has lost his way, unmoored by tragedy, mired in grief and unable to put the fractured pieces of his life back together again; there’s no guarantee that the found family which assembles around them through story and time can do that but as the novel moves through a series of beautifully written personal stories, which illuminate each of the characters in really moving ways, hope begins to make it presence felt once again and Chris suddenly realises that perhaps life is done with him, or a host other people, just yet.

What is so arrestingly lovely about A Million Aunties is the way it soothes the soul even as it admits that life can be every bit as dark and terrible as it appears.

It never dwells on one or the other in any exclusionary way, going back and forth between them, even in the same story in a way that suggests that life is always going to be tension between the good and the bad, the uplifting and the crushingly sad, and that there’s no escaping that.

It’s just a fact of life and we, like Della and Vera and others, have learned to accept it.

However, accepting the stark reality and sometime cruelty of living is not the same as surrendering to it, and while grief all but mandates that a certain surrendering to darkness and sadness take place, A Million Aunties makes a persuasively heartwarming case, without ever being less than grounded, that you can keep walking through life even as you are painted in colour brights and shades sombre.

Chris is having to learn this learn all over again and as he reacquaints himself with his heritage, his flesh and blood family and his found family, old and new, he learns the lesson all over again, or maybe really for the first time, that life is a messy mix of the good and the bad and the only real constant we can hope to have is the community that comes from the friends and family that gather around us.

They reached the house in the late afternoon, and Aunt Della came to the path as he stepped from the car, surrounded by her yapping, gyrating dogs. He hugged her and she hugged him back. This too was new. When was growing up, they’d always been reserved about showing open affection with each other. She hadn’t been the hugging kind, and neither had he, although he remembered her holding him tightly as he got ready to board the plane off the island when he left that first time to study. (P. 107)

Almost organically, unexpectedly and accidentally … and wondrously.

Because that is what happens in A Million Aunties where people not necessarily directly connected find kindred souls in others, to such an extent that by the end of the novel, their lives have been enriched and transformed in ways none of them could have predicted at the start.

You come to know each of the characters so well, thanks to their chapter/s in the narrative spotlight that you really don’t want to say goodbye to them at the end; in fact, as you close the book, there’s a real sense of sadness that you won’t hear from them again.

But, and this is testament to the life-affirming wonder of this marvellous book, you are also buoyed by the fact that these people have all found each other, that they come together in their unexpected family, and that while isn’t really any kinder or forgiving than before, and that the wounds each of the people carry, most profoundly Chris at this point, are still there, that they now have each other to salve the wounds and help heal the pain, even a little bit.

It’s a joy in the midst of this messy business we call life and it leaves you immensely glad to have met Chris, Stephen, Della, Miss Pretty and the others, and thankful that McKenzie wrote A Million Aunties, the kind of novel we all need because while it admits life can be bleak and awful and terrible, also knows and sings a lovesong to the power of community and family to see us through even the very worst of times to somewhere that looks a whole lot better than where we began.

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