Consolation is for the undamaged
With The Homecoming, a historical novel, Anna Enquist has changed course. Elizabeth Batts, the main character, is married to James Cook, the eighteenth-century explorer who during his voyages charted large parts of the world. During his third venture to Hawaii, he was murdered by the local populace for circumstances that have never been explained.
The novel opens with Elizabeth waiting for James’ return after his second voyage, one which has lasted several years. Three of their five children have died in his absence; the accidental death of their little daughter Elizabeth being an especially heavy blow. Once Cook is back, the couple seems to have drifted apart. James may be a hero to the world at large, but as husband and father he is a failure. He has seen none of his children grow up, and the burden of their deaths falls entirely on Elizabeth, all of which makes her the true hero of the marriage. This is also evident in the editing of his travel reports with Elizabeth correcting James’ grammatical mistakes and his style and resisting the editorial bowdlerization which James has accepted without complaint. On shore James is not to be the superior commander he is at sea; he is often ill, is terrible at carrying out his tasks as advisor, and feels ill at ease in society.
No wonder that Cook accepts a new commission to find a northern passage to the east. He is present for the birth of his sixth child, but by the time of its death as well as that of his two remaining sons he sailed away and Elizabeth has to cope with the grief and mourning by herself. Even though she is strong, she finds it hard – not helped by being continually haunted by the death of her young daughter. As the violin teacher of her musical son Nathaniel tells her: ‘Consolation is for those who’ve suffered no more than a minor blow. I don’t think you can bear consolation.’
Now, in addition to the loss of her six children, Elizabeth has James’ death to mourn too. The facts of the case are concealed by the authorities in order not to detract from his heroism, and for the rest of her life Elizabeth hears the ‘true’ facts about his death bit by bit – a fictional dénouement that makes the futile waiting for his homecoming extra poignant. The Homecoming is a story about loss and sorrow and expectations not realized, but it is also a insightful and splendidly written portrait in which Enquist effortlessly bridges the distance in time.