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Posted on 4 Apr 2013 in Fiction |

AMITY GAIGE Schroder. Reviewed by Rose Powell

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schroderA cleverly constructed identity disintegrates in the face of the bond between father and daughter.

Schroder is the quiet and brave third novel by Amity Gaige. It explores the long shadows of lies, the short work lies can make of everything you hold dear, and the murkier elements of identity.

The novel tells the story of Erik Schroder, and the collapse of his life and identity as Eric Kennedy. When he was young, Schroder moved with his father from East Germany to the United States. Longing for a different childhood, with the whole-hearted desperation and contorting intensity of a child, he swaps his name from Schroder to Kennedy in order to get a scholarship to attend a boys’ summer camp.

But Schroder, now Kennedy, never steps away from his new-found persona and surname, and slowly embroiders more details around his new name, slowly stitching his father out of the frame of his life altogether. While he explains that he never deliberately claimed he was related to the Kennedy political dynasty, he regularly allows people to believe the connection exists.

He grows up, goes to university and gets married to Laura, with whom he has a daughter, Meadow. After Laura leaves him and begins to limit his access to Meadow, his creative approach to reality and his much-discussed erratic parenting style become serious issues when he packs his six-year-old daughter into the car for a spontaneous trip. This soon escalates into an increasingly intense abduction:

So there we were, by the roadside, my daughter and myself. She was sitting obediently in the trunk of a stolen Mini Cooper somewhere shy of Champlain, New York. And I had my hand on the trunk door and was debating how to explain this.

The slow, eerie staining of a sympathetic character with alarming decisions and unclear intentions is handled well by Gaige, who clearly wants her readers to feel for Schroder. The moment when Meadow is upset by her father’s request that she lie in the boot quietly is a turning point expertly pared back to allow the reader’s now waning sympathies to crescendo. From this moment, the book requires the same urgent, panicked reading that made Emma Donoghue’s Room a bestseller.

Perhaps unavoidably when tackling such raw material, the novel is not without issues. As the story is told through a long letter from Schroder to his estranged wife Laura, the reader is trapped in Erik’s perspective from the very beginning.

Gaige’s decision to use a letter, a limited but effective storytelling form, is especially brave given Schroder’s narcissistic character. It creates a story where key decisions aren’t really explained and all the characters in the book are underdeveloped.

Schroder’s voice varies from bewildered to smug to disconcertingly out of touch. For example, early on when he describes his lack of concern about his false name being discovered:

You may be surprised to hear that until then, I rarely worried about being found out. Maybe I didn’t worry about it because I am insane (as most people who’ve read my case now assume).

Gaige’s assumption the reader will feel for Schroder is a risky one. The story is relentlessly told through his increasingly deluded and self-indulgent voice and can occasionally feel heavy-handed. Failure to connect with Schroder is a real possibility, in which case the book becomes more of an impressive literary experiment than the moving tale promised by its blurb.

The multiple timelines are also occasionally a bit confusing, and marred by some moments that are unclear, probably more due to authorial oversight than the narrator’s struggle with his deteriorating grasp on reality.

However, these minor issues are swept away by the trembling climb of the narrative’s rising stakes. Ultimately, Schroder is a compelling novel that explores a parent’s terror of losing a child in a well-paced and moving story.

Amity Gaige Schroder, Faber, 2013, PB, 288pp, $27.99

Rose Powell is a writer and journalist. She currently coordinates the public program of events and festivals for the NSW Writers’ Centre. 

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.