Fault Lines

Nan­cy Huston

By – January 9, 2012

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.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of 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?