James Pak, narrator and main character in The House of Widows, is a man reeling. The historian and lifelong academic is still, in the present day of the novel, dealing with his father’s suicide years before. Framed in a present day dilemma—another situation in which James must decide whether or not to divulge personal information with collective consequences—James takes us back to his search for the truth about his father’s suicide.
The wound is particularly hard to heal for James, since he was there to witness his father’s violent death. That fact, given to us early on, informs the intensity with which he pursues truth. He often hides behind his role as historian, claiming this personal quest as nothing more than another trip down a mine of history. But, as we follow him through his quest we see how personally important it is. As he goes through England and Austria and Ukraine, and with the tone the modern day James inflects on his story, we can feel the hurt still coursing through him.
The hurt gets no better when with each stop, with each person met—particularly his dying aunt Vera—the truths surrounding his father, and his family as a whole, become more and more problematic. Vera, as it turns out, was integral in the international sex trade, and James’ uncles know a great deal more about his father’s situation than they initially let on.
Also adding to the tension is the political climate of the modern world. As he is on his quest, America is on the verge of invading Iraq. That fact makes James the butt of an awful lot of criticism as he travels through Europe. In one way, this makes for a useful obstacle in James’ travels, pushing the information he seeks that much farther away. In another way, it becomes a plodding, overused way to remind us of international opinion. James is reminded more than once—in fact, so many times that any reader, regardless of politics, will begin to roll their eyes—about how America is an oil-fueled bully.
That discussion has its place in the novel, since much of the story concerns itself with the individual’s role in collective history. So it paints James’ search as a bit sinister, since he’s an American selfishly stripping information and resources from another country. This is more the perception of other characters than it is actual reality, but it does provide a nice grinding between people, when that hand is not overplayed.
Ultimately, the more James learns about his father, the more we are pulled in. Melnyczuk does a fantastic job of borrowing from tales of mystery and international intrigue to stretch out tension and move the action of the novel along. It is a much needed movement as James, the historian, is unfailingly internal. So much so that, without all this history unfolding around him, he’d probably be unable to carry a story on by himself.
Melnyczuk injects his internal nature into this story of intrigue through a beautiful use of syntax and structure. The language sounds wistful and unmoored, the sound of a man still lost deep in the past. But once he dives back into his story, the tone changes to that of a man younger in his knowledge of the world, a man drowning in the waves of information coming his way.
Similarly, the overall make-up of the book supports its themes. For such a short book—it is just over 250 pages—we see it broken down into 12 parts, some of which are broken into their own chapters. That structure strengthens the notion that the history we are learning about is not one giant, unknowable thing, but instead a mosaic made of tiny, fragmented parts. The artifacts Pak retains from his father’s life – his British military uniform, a letter in a language James doesn’t recognize, and a glass jar – each get their own section here, their own separate moment of explication. They reveal first the father’s mistakes, then the family’s, and eventually expand and fold themselves into wartime errors before doubling back on James’ own missteps. Family history becomes global history, and vica- versa.
The one setback in these fragments occurs when some take us away from James’ perspective and into other points-of-view. It seems like a necessary move for this type of book, but sometimes serves to give the reader answers a little too easily, answers to plot questions that—in the face of more important personal questions—need not always be addressed.
James comes to learn his own role in his family’s history and, when we return to his present day to finish the novel, we see him still coming to grips with that. How he reconciles with his past, step by step, will inform his next move. We see him inching towards a self-awareness he needs to act on, but whether or not he actually finds what he was seeking all along is a little murky. When we get to the end, we know his next move, but what we don’t know is if he understands what that next move means.