Brittani Sonnenberg’s debut novel, Home Leave, is a moving multiple-narrative exploration of the life of a peripatetic family torn asunder by a death in the family. The Kriegsteins (parents Chris and Elise and daughters Leah and Sophie) move around the world as a result of Chris’s job, leaving each member somewhat unmoored, with no real place to call home. Their travels and range of experiences lead the reader to consider what makes a place a home, whether family is enough to keep one grounded in a constantly changing environment, and how someone eventually comes to belong to both a place and a group of people.
Chris thrives on the challenges offered by his upward mobility within the company. Elise, a restless spirit from Mississippi who is desperate to leave behind a family trauma that has been swept under the rug, is initially a willing partner in her husband’s international adventures. Their first stops in London and Hamburg suit her in different ways. But a return to the suburbs of Philadelphia leaves the couple feeling stuck and antsy after a few years.
Leah is born in Hamburg, Sophie two years later in Philadelphia. Before long, the Kriegsteins find themselves in Shanghai, which the girls hate (in part because they stand out with their blonde hair), but which Elise comes to love for reasons even she finds hard to comprehend. The girls have a close love-hate relationship that resembles that of twins; because they are always moving to new places and struggling to acclimate to foreign cultures, they come to rely upon each other in a very powerful way. Leah, older and taller and something of an introvert, alternately envies and admires Sophie, the more attractive, energetic extrovert who seems to exert a spell over everyone she meets.
A move to Singapore follows, as does tragedy when 14-year-old Sophie dies suddenly (this is not a plot spoiler, as it is revealed early on in the book). The Kriegsteins are now truly far from home; the unique chemistry of the foursome is destroyed, leaving each of the remaining three adrift emotionally. Sophie was the glue that held the family together by sheer force of personality. Should they remain in Singapore or return to the United States? But where? They lived in Philadelphia for a few years and, after some time in Europe, in Atlanta (which Leah views as the closest thing to home, having spent some of her key childhood years there); they also lived briefly in Madison, the location of the company’s headquarters, before moving to Shanghai. When the company gave Elise and the girls “home leave,” an all-expenses-paid summer at home each year, they returned to Atlanta, with Elise making a brief pilgrimage to Vidalia, Mississippi. But Atlanta doesn’t seem like it holds the answers. In a word, the Kriegsteins are lost.
Sonnenberg explores each character’s inner and outer world with psychological acuity. The narrative moves through time and space, changing from an omniscient point of view to various first-person narratives that put us inside the worlds of Elise, Chris, Leah, and Sophie. The opening chapter, “1116 Arcadia Avenue, Vidalia, Mississippi,” is a tour-de-force of narration and perspective that must be read to be appreciated. It is worth the price of the book alone.
Some readers may find the constantly shifting narration to be confusing, but others will appreciate the omniscient, kaleidoscopic view it eventually produces, along with the energy it provides. The shifts mirror the moves made by the Krigsteins, briefly disorienting the reader in the same way as the characters. Frequent flashbacks only serve to remind us that, as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun (1951), “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the years following Sophie’s death, we again see the truth of that observation. Sophie haunts each of the Kriegsteins in different ways, with different results, as they struggle to find peace — and a place to call home.
Home Leave introduces readers to Brittani Sonnenberg, a writer of boundless creativity, polished prose, and impressive insight produced by her own world travels and wide range of experiences. It is an impressive first novel that bodes well for her future. Remember her name.