Alani Baum, a non-binary photographer and teacher, hasn’t seen their mother since they ran away with their girlfriend when they were seventeen -- almost thirty years ago. But when Alani gets a call from a doctor at the assisted living facility where their mother has been for the last five years, they learn that their mother’s dementia has worsened and appears to have taken away her ability to speak. As a result, Alani suddenly find themselves running away again -- only this time, they’re running back to their mother.
Staying at their mother’s empty home, Alani attempts to tie up the loose ends of their mother’s life while grappling with the painful memories that—in the face of their mother’s disease -- they’re terrified to lose. Meanwhile, the memories inhabiting the house slowly grow animate, and the longer Alani is there, the longer they’re forced to confront the fact that any closure they hope to get from this homecoming will have to be manufactured.
This beautiful, tenderly written debut novel by Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers winner John Elizabeth Stintzi explores what haunts us most, bearing witness to grief over not only what is lost, but also what remains.
In Stintzi's ambitious debut novel (after the poetry collection Junebat) a nonbinary photographer based in Minneapolis struggles to break through the barriers of their past. The photographer, Alani Baum, navigates their "memory palace" after their mother's dementia takes a turn for the worse and they return to their childhood home in Winnipeg for the first time in 30 years. The components of the palace guide the narrative through collaged passages that examine the space's fixed points. Chapters titled "The Living Room" and "The Stairs" open on scenes narrated in the second person, bringing the reader into rooms where walls are "covered in memories." Stintzi ties Alani's troubled history with their mother to readings of Ovid, descriptions of photographs, and past travels from the narrator's life that reach as far as Hamburg, where Alani worked as a model for photographer Erwin Egger. Certain moments stand out vividly a description of Alani navigating their nonbinary identity through the metaphor of a labyrinth and a Minotaur, the detailed construction of Erwin's photographic compositions but they don't all cohere in the long run. Still, Stintzi's skill shines through in well-crafted sentences and narratives. Despite its weaknesses, Stintzi's first foray into the novel form displays a visionary approach with the refreshing touch of a poet.