Kin by Dror Burstein, translated by Dalya Bilu
Two teenage parents give up their baby, Emile, and a childless couple, Leah and Yoel, adopts him. Simple in theory, but nothing is ever simple with family. In his new novel, Kin, Dror Burstein tracks Emile and his four parents as they move through the same city. For thirty-plus years, their paths never cross, though all are haunted by the knowledge of each other's existence. When the elderly Yoel decides to reunite now grown-up Emile with his birth parents, he threatens to upend what has hovered on the periphery for decades and catapult it into front and center.
Kin is broken into short chapters, each titled with the name of the character whose point of view it takes. Part stream-of-consciousness and part dreamscape, this disjointed narrative intertwines memory with the present, and at first, it's difficult to get a handle on. Being dropped in and out of multiple internal monologues doesn't allow for much traction, but as the novel progresses, this narrative style illuminates the story's many layers -- namely, the lies the characters tell versus how they truly feel. Though Emile's birth parents act as though they've forgotten about him, the father believes, "if he could see [Emile], only for a minute, and even from a distance, it would give him a little peace. And so in the beginning he would go and look for him. Just stand there at school fences. Is that him? Is that him? For years." The intimate and complex nature of this novel demands more than a chronological or cohesive narrative can give, but only in the hands of a skilled writer could it succeed without falling apart at the barely there seams.
Emile is the center around which Kin revolves, but most of the chapters are in the point of view of Yoel, a deeply conflicted man who never quite figures out how to be an adoptive father. While Leah has no trouble becoming Emile's mother, Yoel is vexed by his child's "otherness"; for one thing, that dark-skinned Emile does not resemble light-skinned Yoel and Leah. To Yoel, "There was an internal contradiction in their home. A guest had entered the family on a permanent basis." Yet despite his shortcomings and reservations, Yoel loves his child. When Emile needs a blood transfusion, "they tested Yoel, and it turned out that he couldn't donate. He couldn't give. A rare blood type. AB. So he stood facing the nurse in charge and begged, as if it was up to her." The ache of knowing that someone else brought his son into the world is never far from Yoel's heart.
Yoel at once longs for and is terrified to let Emile's birth parents become part of his child's life, and he makes several failed attempts before working up the courage to meet them. The narrator says of Yoel, "He was afraid, that's the truth, to look at them. As if the look itself, their faces, would constitute a claim of ownership." This push-and-pull of contradictory emotions thrums throughout the novel, as the characters wrestle with both wanting to let go of the past and straining to keep it clenched in their fists. Burstein plays off this tension by interspersing the novel with chapters entitled "The City," which portray a post-apocalyptic world. Though these chapters seem to come out of nowhere, they provide insights into the overall story: "The inhabitants of the city were supposed to leave, but they stayed. Some of them because they weren't completely convinced by these scientific predictions -- but most of them to see." When Emile's birth parents give him up, they forsake an entire life they could've had, and when Yoel tries to reunite them, he risks that the lives each of them knows might come to an end. They're all curious, all want "to see" what could happen, but no one has the courage to pull the trigger and be the reason the world falls apart.
When Yoel at last encounters the birth parents, "Emile's face flickered over his parents' faces. Yoel couldn't hold onto it for even a second, put his finger on the resemblance, on the feature that belonged, beyond a doubt to the child who had been with him for thirty-seven years." The resolution Yoel is seeking, both for himself and his son, will not be found so easily, and indeed, this novel is uninterested in tidy conclusions. Rather than bringing about a resolution, the book tapers off, leaving many questions unanswered. Emile is portrayed as a precocious and sometimes disturbing child, but we see only snippets of him as he ages and never know why Yoel is so hell-bent on reuniting him with his birth parents. What does become clear, amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, is that these characters are traveling together, however unwillingly, bound by a child none fully knows. Each of them yearns to be freed from the other but understands they never can be, fixed together by this fine, unbreakable thread of being kin.
Kin by Dror Burstein, translated by Dalya Bilu
Dalkey Archive Press