Fault Lines

Black Cat  2007

The story of four generations of a family, Nancy Huston’s twelfth novel, Fault Lines, is a brilliant, multi-layered study in the fallout of evil. The winner of The Prix Femina Award and short-listed for the Orange Prize, the book’s ambitious structure is fascinating. One member from each of the four generations shares a pivotal period from the seventh year of life in his or her own voice. The episodes begin with the most current, in the Bay Area in 2004, travel to Haifa in the ‘80’s, to Canada in the 60’s, and end up in Germany at the end of World War II. The reader’s first introduction to each character is as an adult from his of her own descendant’s point of view. The reader hears from the same characters again as children, and learns to understand the formative influences on his or her personality. Although, at times Huston attributes a bit too much wisdom and perception to the seven-year-old voices, their interpretation of the behaviors of the people around them brings into sharp focus the fears, weaknesses, and dysfunction of the adults making all the decisions. Huston’s book is masterful, complex, and creative.

Discussion Questions

From: Black Cat

1. Explore some of the possible meanings of the title. How does it grow or change as you read further in the novel? Is your first thought a geologic fracture? Perhaps blended with bloodlines?  How are various meanings of failing, weakness, foibles, blame and vice relevant?

2. In the first section how is Sol a prism into the history of his family? Does this prism have its own fault line? What contributes to his idea that he is all powerful? His idea of heroic destiny can be seen cynically as a comment on his own absurd coddling and the internet and movie culture of apotheosized violence. Talk about these ideas. What do Sol’s own politics say about him and his world view? “Fortunately God and President Bush are buddies” (p. 5).

3. One of William Faulkner’s characters says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What are the consequences of the past in this book, both for those who seek it out and for those who try to ignore it? As the mystery uncoils, do you wonder why Sadie has such white-hot fervor?

4. What are we to make of Randall’s mercy killing of Marvin the bear?  “‘It’s really hot, Marvin, isn’t it? . . . here, we’ll just try and get this thing off you.’. . . I cut and slit. I slit his throat . . . He’s a really old bear. ‘Happy heaven, Marvin’ and then I wash my hands and feel better” (p. 148-9). This six-year-old’s violent act occurs after Sharon’s invasion of West Beirtu and Randall’s repudiation by his dear Arab friend Nouzha. His own parents bring the Arab-Israeli battle home to the kitchen. What are Randall’s reactions in a household of armed peace? How does his memory of Nouzha’s own purple birthmark offer him some hope for a better world in the future?

5. How does violence pervade the book? Are we to deduce that Nazi Germany sows the seeds for all the violence thereafter? Beirut? Palestine? And by extension Abu Ghraib?

6. Cruelty to children is another level of abuse in the book. Think of incidents involving Erra, Sadie, Randall and Sol. Are they exaggerated from a six-year-old’s  point of view? The cruelty can be leveled by angry, disturbed parents, by other children (“So how’s life in the bathroom, Sadie?” (p. 177), by grandparents (nasty hardballs to Sol and a spanking , and Sadie’s grandmother’s calculated furies in Toronto.) The cruelty can also be mere insouciance, adults hearkening to their own lives first. “I say nothing, but I feel forlorn and somewhat swindled” says Sadie (p. 188) about Erra and Peter’s breaking a promise. What other incidents come to mind?

7. Where do children get their ideas about sex in the book? Were you surprised at their level of awareness and also misapprehension?

8. How does Huston create a surreal parallel world in the interior dream life of the children? As wild as the fantasies are, do they even begin to match the atrocities of war, abandonment, and terrorism? Do Sol’s obsessions with perversion reflect a blighted world?

9. How do Erra’s different names symbolize the upheavals and recombinations of identities in wartime Europe? “Can I sing in German again if it turns out I’m Ukrainian whereas I thought I was Polish?” (p. 294).

10. Why is it that songs without words are Erra’s signature style? We recall that Johann/Janek was brutally beaten for speaking Polish in a camp. “So after that I stopped talking Polish. They tore my tongue out by the roots” (p. 276). Erra/Kristina herself had nightmares of tongues torn out, “still moving, their roots waving helplessly in the air, like tiny lobsters” (p. 276). Kristina says, “I learn to sing without words. I make sounds in the back of my throat, pushing my voice up higher and higher until it stabs the sky. I go down with it into my deepest self where the lava bubbles and boils” (p. 278).  Are we reminded of the Rilke epigraph to the novel? “What was it—that burning, that amazement, that endless insufficiency, that sweet, that deep, that radiant feeling of tears welling up? What was it?” Some of Huston’s writing about Erra’s music recalls James Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues” and Eudora Welty in “Powerhouse.”  How are we transported through words into the music?

11. How is Janek both a victim and a perpetrator of a fault line? Trace his story. Did his fate seem inevitable? How was he a nemesis for both Peter and Sadie? And perhaps Erra?

12. Talk about some of the funny moments. In a book of opinionated, zesty survivors, humor is often a protective device or a lifeline to another character and sometimes a way of a character’s digging in heels about who he or she is.

13. Images of soldiers recur throughout the book. Johann, on arrival in Kristina’s town, is described as standing there “like a lead soldier, implacable, impervious and indifferent” (p. 266). Kristina’s teddy bear with the cymbals marches woodenly like a soldier. Randall’s warrior robots, efficient because they have no human feelings, “no anger, no fear, no pity, no remorse” are blasted by Sadie because they sound like “The perfect Nazi—the perfect hard, steely, emotionless macho male” (p. 54-55). Even the figures in the clock tower, as Kristen recalls, emerge with movements that “are human movements, only jerkier and the expression on their faces is unchanging. They’re not alive” (p. 235).Are military people or goals ever regarded with respect or admiration in the book?   (Sol, of course, wants his father to gain fame and glory for the family as a soldier in Iraq.)

14. How did Mrs. Webern figure in the story as recalled by Kristina and Greta? (See p. 72, 243, 296). What was Lothar’s role in the chain of events? How does treachery on the neighbor level wrench our hearts sometimes more than on the larger scale of nations and armies?

15. Could we imagine a whole different set of “fault lines,” starting with Sol and working backwards through his mother’s lineage?

16. Do you think Huston could have taken the story yet another generation backward, i.e. to the childhood of Kristina/Erra’s father, who would have been sic during World War I?

17. What, if anything, does the congenital naevus (birthmark) symbolize in this novel?

18. Did reading Fault Lines change the ways in which you think about your own family history, or the construction of your own identity?

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