In Rebecca Kauffman’s fourth novel, Chorus, family relationships, especially those between siblings, are dissected to expose all their messy and glorious complexities. Kauffman accomplishes her dissection of the Shaw family through a linked-story structure. The narrator’s role rotates among the seven Shaw siblings and their father and spans from 1911 to 1959, though not in chronological order. As the focus of each story narrows on an individual, a wider picture of the Shaw family emerges—the bonds and strengths, miscommunications, and deliberate misleadings. And through this examination of a family as a collection of individuals, Chorus reveals how ultimately unknowable we are to each other, that often those who have known us the longest and at our most vulnerable are also those who overlook what they don’t want to see, just as we often overlook those parts of ourselves.
At the center of Chorus and the Shaw family is their mother’s death, which is revealed in the second chapter titled “The Remembrance.” Maeve, the second oldest sister, narrates her story one year after her mother’s death, sure she is the only sibling who notices it. But in the evening she finds her youngest brother Henry hitting his forehead against the wooden beam of his bed, pledging his love for Jesus. As she peers at him through the keyhole, Maeve thinks, “Every other life would contain a multitude of entanglements and obsessions and longings that you could not even imagine; every other life would remain as alien to you as if it had been lived out on the moon.” In that moment, Maeve sees Henry for who he is, a boy mourning his mother, instead of the Henry known to the family—the most sensitive, the youngest. Though Maeve doesn’t reflect on the cause of Henry’s self-inflictions, we know that the mother’s death has worked its way into the family’s psyche in ways they have yet to realize.
The Shaw family does not only grapple with the loss of their mother, terrible in itself, but also with whether it was intentional or not. Their mother’s mental illness, most often called the “darkness,” caused her to be confined to her bed for much of her youngest children’s lives and to be volatile and unpredictable during the older ones’. Even as children, the siblings are divided about its cause: Wendy and Sam, the oldest children, who find her dead in her bed at lunchtime, insist that their mother mistook sleeping pills for anxiety ones; Maeve and Jack, in the middle, believe it was suicide; the youngest, Lane, Bette, and Henry do not doubt what the two oldest say.
Childhood confusion is replaced with how the mystery of their mother manifests in adulthood. In “A Haunting,” Bette drives to a doctor to figure out why her leg is tingling. Once she arrives at a kind of compound, she realizes it is a psychiatric ward and quickly turns around. In “The Show,” directly following, Bette is a young child and decides to put on a comedy routine for her bed-bound mother. The routine fails, not for lack of practice and talent, but because Bette and Henry are distracted by their mother’s condition as she lays in bed, watching them with empty eyes. Eventually, the mother says, “I love you.” Bette thinks her mother’s words “could mean anything.” It is this back-to-back shift between adult and child where Chorus‘s movement between years and narrators is most successful. Child Bette can’t imagine what “love” means coming from her mother. Adult Bette fears she might have inherited her darkness, something she can’t admit to herself.
If Bette’s reactions and emotions remain hidden, she certainly doesn’t mention them to her siblings. The silence crosses the family and seems a product of time, early twentieth century, place, rural Virginia, and the inherited reticence of the father Jim Shaw. The silence is also reflected in Chorus’s structure through the suppression of two sisters’ points-of-view until the middle and end of the novel: Lane, because she would rather slip below people’s attention until she bursts upon it by becoming pregnant as a teenager, and Wendy because she is the appointed caregiver in the absence of a mother. The effect of this suspended introduction is that the reader has absorbed the other siblings’ view of the two sisters, especially Wendy, so that the revelation of their interiority bursts through. Neither sister is who we’d been led to believe: Lane, for all her demureness, is roiling with anger, and Wendy is more than just a caregiver. She has completely embodied the mother’s role so that she feels as if she’d given birth to her siblings. The image the Shaw siblings have of each other, the one that forms through family experience and lore, never encompasses the whole, actual person. And it is within this gap that Kauffman’s Chorus resides.
Chorus reveals the layers of self and its varied constructions, ultimately creating an honest, multi-layered portrait of a family. At the end, however, the siblings and their families gather for Christmas at the farmhouse. Unbelievably, there is zero tension—no fights or harsh words or long-repressed emotions. They go ice skating and eat dinner and take long walks through the snow. The seven siblings are more than civil to each other; they are doting and loving. The Shaws have put their egos and vulnerabilities aside for the holidays, which is what strikes me as strange. But I think Kauffman’s ending speaks to the hopefulness that can reside within families, the unique ability we have as siblings and sons and daughters to at least attempt a return to simpler times of loving and forgiveness. “We came into this world bound together,” Maeve says about her closest brother Jack. A bind can be a blessing or a curse but is most likely the myriad between.
by Rebecca Kauffman
Published on March 01, 2022
Amber Ruth Paulen is a writer and educator living in rural Michigan. She earned her MFA in fiction at Columbia University and is currently writing a novel-in-stories that follows multiple generations through the rise and fall of a family dairy farm.