Four years after the unexpected death of his wife, Julian Barnes wrote an essay titled “The Loss of Depth,” inverting the usual order of the phrase, “the depth of loss.” The depth he missed with his deceased spouse was their shared history: inside jokes, winks, shorthand conversation, layers now gone from his life.
The three siblings and their spouses at the heart of Lynn Steger Strong’s psychologically astute, deeply affecting novel, “Flight,” are similarly lost eight months after the sudden death of the family’s matriarch, Helen, of a stroke at age 72. The grown children must now invent a new adhesive without their “whip-smart, well-read, loving” mother figure.
Strong’s 2020 novel, the scorchingly good, critically praised “Want,” featured a first-person narrator living on the economic fringes with her small family in Brooklyn. Elizabeth, who is not named until the book’s very end, is always in danger of crossing a line.
Many of the characters in “Flight” — another one-syllable, energetic title — have crossed troubling lines before the novel begins. Martin, the steady older brother, has breached a boundary with one of his university students — not sexual, but a slip in judgment, gossiping with one female student about another. Alice, married to younger brother Henry, has formed a too-close attachment with one of her social work clients, giving a castoff phone to a child named Maddie and texting her encouraging messages, a practice forbidden by her nonprofit employer. Josh, married to Kate, the younger sister who feels the loss of Helen most keenly, has drained his own inheritance with “botched investments.”
The family is gathered for their first Christmas without their beloved mother. Helen knew the importance of connection: “Helen wasn’t religious. But some years she dabbled in Eastern religions of all kinds, made everyone meditate. Other years, she made them go to church for the community. She believed in parties, food, coming together — naming ceremonies instead of baptisms, Michaelmas some years, solstice parties . . .”
The weighty elephant in the room is property. Helen died without leaving a will; the only asset is her Florida home, the site of so many family holidays. Kate wants the house, yearns to raise her three kids where she grew up, reenacting cherished rituals and recipes of her childhood. But in the way of grief and loss, physical objects, especially big ones like a childhood home, take on added emotional freight. Martin’s wife, Tess, an attorney, sees the house in strictly economic terms. If Kate and her husband, Josh, want it, they should simply buy it. The family is celebrating Christmas not in Florida, but in upstate New York, in the house artist-turned-social worker Alice inherited from her grandmother.
There is much discussion in “Flight” of the economic circumstances of the characters. All face financial strains, whether from bad investments, bad behavior, or outsized consumption. There are questions about varieties of work: whether Kate’s childrearing and domestic labor constitute valued, legitimate work (she mainly worries about this). Whether Henry’s art — the flock of exquisite clay birds he’s crafting in the barn of the house where the family is staying, inspired by the urgency of climate change and the need for community — qualifies as bona fide work.
All three couples are armored at the family gathering’s outset, surrounded by a membrane of judgment, criticizing their in-laws, their spouses, displacing their grief at the loss of their mother, debating whether Kate and her “useless” husband Josh deserve the house. When a crisis occurs — Alice’s client Maddie, almost 7, goes missing — the family galvanizes into action. The membrane separating the characters melts, as sure as the winter snow will melt. They soften toward each other.
As older brother Martin looks at his family, he “sees them as a small good gift. They aren’t perfect: they fight, and maybe none of them would have become friends if they’d not been forced their whole lives to be together as a family. But they love each other and they like each other well enough.”
Lynn Steger Strong’s writing is economical but packs a gut punch. In “Flight” she explores various kinds of inheritances: the emotional solidity we inherit — or don’t — from our parents; whether we will inherit a future as a planet if we don’t vastly modify our habits of consumption. She also probes varieties of caregiving: from daughter-in-law Tess’s tight control, born of childhood trauma, to daughter Kate’s loving encouragement modeled from Helen (she endearingly calls her children “Ducks,” like the flock they are).
Henry hopes, as he doggedly and daily works in the barn, that his suspended clay birds will be “close enough that they look from certain angles like one fluid thing, far enough apart that they seem separate, still themselves.”
Strong accomplishes the same in her emotionally transcendent novel “Flight,” in which the individual characters, over the course of a three-day holiday, gather and become a functioning aggregate, creating a new depth in their loss.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.
Lynn Steger Strong
Mariner, 232 pages, $27.99