Review: Nobody's Son

In a body of work that includes a PEN Award-winning essay collection (Essays From the Nick of Time), and a well-regarded novel (Brewster), Mark Slouka has demonstrated an incisive mind with supple prose. He brings those same qualities to bear in Nobody's Son, a memoir of displacement, longing and the searing pain of family conflict.

Natives of Czechoslovakia, Slouka's parents, Zdenek and Olga, were teenagers when the Nazi occupation began in 1939. In 1948, they made their hair-raising escape from the country--now under Communist control. That flight launched them on an odyssey that started with 18 months in an Austrian displaced persons camp and took them to Australia, New York (where Slouka was born in 1958), Bethlehem, Pa., and eventually back to their homeland after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

The Sloukas' journey was "not that different from that of the Syrian or Sudanese refugees in today's paper." And it left its scars on a couple whose marriage had been tension-filled from the start. Employing an episodic narrative structure that's "a bit of mess. A lot like life, if I get it right," Slouka alludes to his father's weakness and alcoholism, but focuses most of his attention on his mother's struggle with an undiagnosed and inadequately treated mental illness (save for prescription medication that became a lifelong affliction), whose roots might involve childhood sexual abuse. Her passion for a man (identified only as "F.") she met at a Czech summer language camp in the first year of her foundering marriage offered only intermittent respite from her emotional turmoil.

Slouka wrestles bravely with the challenge that bedevils any conscientious memoirist--the unreliability of memory and the way every memoir is "riddled with fictions." Indeed, at one point he considered writing his parents' story as a novel, but "thought no one would believe me if I wrote it straight." In a scene near its end he describes a reunion between his mother and F. that's "so unlikely, so much like fiction, that if you found it in a novel you'd put the book aside in favor of something closer to life." But by that point his excavation of his family's past has been so dogged that readers have no choice but to readily suspend disbelief.

The title of Slouka's elegiac memoir provides an ironic counterpoint to the reality of this intense, discomfiting account. His is, in fact, the story of a dutiful son, who, despite ample reason to do so, never abandoned his parents, even in an old age they chose to live thousands of miles from him. The sad truth of these pages is that love and the best intentions too often aren't enough to save vulnerable souls from the damage they inflict on themselves. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Mark Slouka's memoir of life with his Czech immigrant parents is a moving portrait of displacement and loss.

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