Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Fault Lines

by Nancy Huston

“Vivid and lush. . . . Huston keeps us invested in smaller moments . . . These exquisitely evoked scenes are just as formative as the awful secrets at the novel’s deepest strata. They may well be the parts that sink deepest into the reader’s memory.” —New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date October 14, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7051-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Winner of the Prix Femina, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, and a finalist for the Prix Goncourt, Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines is a brilliant, affecting novel about the deep secret lying behind one family’s origins.

A best seller in France, with over 400,000 copies sold, and currently being translated into eighteen languages, Fault Lines is the new novel from internationally-acclaimed and best-selling author Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born writer who has lived in France for twenty-five years. Huston’s novel is a profound and poetic story that traces four generations of a single family from present-day California to WW II-era Germany.

Fault Lines begins with Sol, a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness partly because he has a birthmark like his dad, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. When Sol’s family makes an unexpected trip to Germany, secrets begin to emerge about their history during World War II. It seems birthmarks are not all that’s been passed down through the bloodlines.

Closely observed, lyrically told, and epic in scope, Fault Lines is a touching, fearless, and unusual novel about four generations of children and their parents. The story moves from the West Coast of the United States to the East, from Haifa to Toronto to Munich, as secrets unwind back through time until a devastating truth about the family’s origins is reached. In her award-winning, bestselling novel, Nancy Huston tells a riveting, vigorous tale in which love, music, and faith rage against the shape of evil.


“All told, Fault Lines is thrilling, a masterpiece of unconventional form that fulfills the age-old promise of the novel: to imagine other lives with an unparalleled intimacy and so to convince ourselves that our own lives might too someday be intelligible, to ourselves and to the people we love. Huston has given us one of the most engaging, evocative novels of the year.” —Anne Julia Wyman, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Vivid and lush. . . . Huston keeps us invested in smaller moments . . . These exquisitely evoked scenes are just as formative as the awful secrets at the novel’s deepest strata. They may well be the parts that sink deepest into the reader’s memory.” —New York Times Book Review

“An intelligent and perceptive writer, has scored handsomely with her 11th novel, which has garnered wide praise in her adopted country of France. . . . Huston writes movingly of the role of history in our lives—how the past is not just a memory, but an affliction that seeps into the blood and gets passed on to subsequent generations, its effects unpredictable and unquantifiable.” —Vikram Johri, St. Petersburg Times

“Masterful and ambitious . . . [Huston] has a fast-paced style, as breathless as Philip Roth’s, deceptively light though deeply engaged in current events.” —Salon

“The author writes with power.” —Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

“Winner of France’s Prix Femina and shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Huston’s 12th novel captures four generations of a family and examines the decades-long fallout of a dark family secret. The novel proceeds in reverse chronological order from 2004 to 1944 and begins with six-year-old Sol, who is sheltered and coddled by his mother as he immerses himself in all the perversities the Internet can offer. After surgery to remove Sol’s congenital birthmark turns out poorly, the extended family takes a trip to great-grandmother Erra’s childhood home in Munich. A turbulent history underlies the visit, and after Sol witnesses a tussle between his great-grandmother and great-aunt, the novel skips backwards in time through the childhood of Sol’s father, Randall; grandmother Sadie; and finally Erra. Huston’s brilliance is in how she gradually lets the reader in on the secret and draws out the revelation so carefully that by the time the reader arrives at the heart of the matter in Munich 1944, the discovery hits with blunt force. Huston masterfully links the 20th century’s misery to 21st-century discomfort in razor-sharp portraits of children as they lose their innocence.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Huston [is] . . . at her most ambitious in this new novel. . . . The multiple viewpoints are well handled and show how children are so often more aware of the poor behavior of adults than adults themselves.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“A tragic historical saga and an engaging and often surprisingly funny story. Huston’s prose is attuned to the breathless pattern of her children’s voices . . . a captivating read.” —Observer (UK)

“Huston’s layering of narratives lends an increasingly integrated understanding of family history, and the structure is so seamlessly handled that we are left with neither dangling ends nor any of the usual sense of mystified frustration inherent in reverse chronology. This is an immaculate novel.” —The Guardian (UK)

“The adventurous, polyphonic structure of Fault Lines . . . testifies to the intricate care [Huston] takes with structure . . . the fault lines of the title are the moments when civilization is stressed to the point of fracture; the clear-eyed six-year old narrators evoke the stress with a disarming absence of rhetoric and complexity that puts into focus the corrupting horrors that adults visit on their world.” —Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Huston . . . skillfully hooks her readers; each section throws light on its predecessor . . . a compelling and affecting novel.” —Mslexia (UK)

“Cleverly crafted . . . you will be rewarded with a surprisingly satisfying novel.” —Daily Express (UK)

“[Huston’s] writing is graceful and fluid and her characters believable and, at times, terribly human. Through four small windows into the lives of four children, she paints a vibrant portrait of a family and its love, loss, and shame.” —Melbourne Times

“A novel of compassion, humor, [and] insight.” —Good Reading Magazine (Australia)

“This ambitious, tightly crafted novel combines the psychological tension of a thriller with sweeping literary brilliance. . . . An intimate novel often at its best chronicling life’s smaller, domestic issues . . . Savor it.” —Sydney Morning Herald

“Explosive in its control and its ambition.” —Le Figaro

“Nancy Huston writes with grace and power, and a wisdom that can only come from the heart.” —Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives

“[Huston] weaves a powerful story, working a thread with love from generation to generation. The acts of one mark the destiny of the next, and for us readers the discovery is fascinating, as we travel back in time. A novel . . . that celebrates the human ability to resist, to have hope and joy, to love, and to start over.” —Máxima (Portugal)

“Nancy Huston’s new novel displays the inventiveness, toughness, and technical brilliance we expect from the Governor General’s Award-winning author . . . Huston dispenses with the trite devices so prevalent among run-of-the-mill novelists. There are no diaries or love letters uncovered in attics or archives; there is, quite simply, the human voice. . . . The balance of elements simple and complex is masterful; the language is direct and arresting; the story is engaging to the end. It’s both a very human story and a novel of ideas, and it’s challenging on both levels.” —Michael Basiliéres, Globe and Mail (Canada)

“Delicately, Nancy Huston is able to give life to those silent tragedies of childhood. With extreme delicacy, she extorts tears from the reader for those daily nothings against which youthful illusions or expectations crash: an unfulfilled promise, a lack of attention, absence of love. No judgment, no demonstration, everyone is, in turn, both victim and executioner.” —France 3

“The greatest achievement of this novel, which unfolds counter-chronologically from 2004 to 1944, is that it makes the reader feel everything at every moment on every level. A true accomplishment, humorous, moving, political: that is what Nancy Huston’s latest work is.” —Le Point

“Through the life of a family with troubled and complex roots, Nancy Huston reflects on the atrocities committed by the Nazis by sprawling their consequences over sixty years of modern history. . . . She invites the reader to go back in time and follow the crack that has, for generations, inexorably scarred this family. From one childhood to another, the reader must find the source of beauty marks—the seal of blood—find that imprint of destiny that will lead to the truth, to the original crack. . . . Lined with cynicism, discretely humorous, this novel, structured at times as a genealogy tree with four branches, at others as a family saga, will enrapture you, literally. . . . A novel written in a brisk and fluid manner, immersed in humanity.” —Evene (France)

“The four narrators of Fault Lines are plagued by questions of identity, and it makes absolutely no difference that each one of them is 6 years old . . . their voices are sophisticated, their understanding of the world nuanced, and it doesn’t hurt that Huston’s language is practically rippling with energy . . . In the final pages, the four narratives come together seamlessly. The questions are answered, the mysteries revealed, and what we’re left with is a complete and troubling portrait of a family undone by its own history.” —Haaretz


Winner of the 2006 Prix Femina
A 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
Selected as a December ’08 Indie Next List Notable title


I — Sol, 2004

I’m awake.

Like flicking on a switch and flooding a room with light.

Snapping out of sleep, clicking into wakefulness, a perfectly functioning mind and body, six years old and a genius, first thought every morning when I wake up.

My brain floods into the world, the world floods into my brain,

I control and own every part of it.

Palm Sunday early G.G. here visiting Mom & Dad still asleep

A sunny Sunday sun sun sun sun king Sol Solly Solomon

I’m like sunlight, all-powerful, instantaneous and invisible, flowing effortlessly into the darkest corners of the universe capable at six of seeing illuminating understanding everything

In a flash I’m washed and dressed, my hair is combed and my bed is made. Yesterday’s socks and underwear are in the dirty laundry basket, later in the week they’ll be washed, dried, ironed and folded by my mother, then returned to my top drawer ready to be used again. This is called a cycle. All cycles have to be controlled and supervised, such as the food cycle. Food circulates through your body and turns you into who you are, so you have to be careful about what you let in and what you keep out. I’m exceptional. I can’t allow just anything into my body: my poop has to come out the right colour and consistency, this is part of the circulation.

I’m actually never hungry and Mom is very understanding about this, she only gives me foods I like because they circulate with ease, yoghurt and cheese and pasta, peanut butter and bread and cereal, she doesn’t insist on the whole vegetable-meat-fish-eggs aspect of eating, saying I’ll get around to that when I’m good and ready for it. She makes me mayonnaise sandwiches and cuts the crusts off for me, but even then I eat only half or a quarter of the sandwich and it’s enough, I nibble at the bread and wet the small pieces with the saliva in my mouth and swish them up between my lips and gums to let them gradually dissolve because I don’t want to actually swallow them. The point is to keep my mind sharp.

Dad wishes I’d eat like a normal growing American boy. He orries about how I’ll manage at the cafeteria when I start school next fall but Mom says she’ll pick me up and bring me home for lunch, that’s what stay-at-home moms are for!

God gave me this body and mind and I have to take the best possible care of them so I can put them to the best possible use. I know He’s got high intentions for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been born in the wealthiest state of the wealthiest country in the world, with the most powerful weapons system capable of blasting the whole human species to kingdom come. Fortunately God and President Bush are buddies. I think of heaven as one big Texas in the sky, with God rambling around in a cowboy hat and boots and checking to make sure everything’s in order on his ranch. Taking an occasional pot shot at a planet for the fun of it.

When they dragged Saddam Hussein out of his rat hole the other day his hair was all matted and dirty, his eyes bleary and bloodshot, his beard unkempt and his cheeks gaunt. Dad sat there in front of the TV set and cheered. “Boy, that’s what I call defeat,” he said. “I hope all those Muslim terrorists know what’s in store for them.” “Randall,” said Mom, who was just then setting down a tray in front of him with an icy glass of beer and a bowl of peanuts, “we should be careful about what we say. You wouldn’t want to give Solly the impression that all Muslims are terrorists, would you? I’m sure there are Muslims living right here in California who are very nice people, I just don’t know them personally.” She said this in a joking tone of voice but I know she was also telling the truth. Dad took a long swig of beer and said “Yeah, you’re right, Tessie, I’m sorry,” and burped quite loudly which Mom decided to take as a joke so she laughed.

I’ve got wonderful parents who love each other which isn’t the case of most kids in my kindergarten. You can tell they love each other because their framed wedding photos are still standing on the buffet along with all the congratulations cards even though they got married seven years ago! Mom is actually two years older than Dad, I hate to admit it and she certainly doesn’t look it but she’s thirty years old, some of the kids in kindergarten have moms in their forties and my friend Brian’s mom is fifty which is older than my Grandma Sadie. That means she had him when she was forty-four years old which is disgusting, I can’t believe people go on screwing in old age. Yes I know how babies are made, I know everything.

It’s actually Grandma Sadie who chose my name for me. She always regretted not giving Dad a Jewish name, so when the next generation came along she didn’t want to miss her chance a second time and Mom said it was okay with her. Mom’s an easygoing person, she basically wants for everybody to be as happy as possible, and I guess Sol can be a Christian name too.

That’s about the extent of my grandmother’s influence in my life because luckily she lives far away in Israel and I almost never see her except in the photos she sends us which are always closeups so you can’t see she’s sitting in a wheelchair. I say luckily because if she lived any closer she’d try to interfere with us and boss us around like Dad says she always does. Even though he’s her own son he dislikes her, but at the same time he’s scared of her and doesn’t dare to stand up to her so whenever she comes here for a visit there’s quite a lot of tension in the air which upsets my mother. As soon as Grandma Sadie’s back is turned, Dad gets courageous and attacks her, once he said she was to blame for the death of his beloved father Aron who was a failed playwright at the age of forty-nine, and Mom said that as far as she knew Dad’s father was killed by smoking cigarettes rather than by his wife, but Dad said there was a well-known connection between cancer and repressed anger which I’m not sure what that means, repressed.

My father once lived in Israel himself when he was my age and he loved the city of Haifa so much that of all the places to live in the United States of America that’s why he chose California, because the eucalyptus and palm trees and orange groves and flowering bushes reminded him of those good old days. Israel is also where he started not liking Arabs because of some Arab girl he fell into and out of love with there, which I don’t know anything about because whenever he talks about it he gets all tense and clams up and even to Mom it’s a mystery what happened with this childhood sweetheart of his.

Grandma Sadie is a cripple and an orthodox Jew unlike anyone else in the family. She wears a wig because when you’re an orthodox Jewish female you’re not supposed to show your hair to anyone except your husband in case they covet you and want to screw you out of wedlock. Given that she’s widowed and confined to a wheelchair, I’d be surprised if anyone would like to covet and screw her but she still refuses to take off the wig. Recently this rabbi in Florida ordered Jewish women to stop wearing wigs made out of Indian women’s hair because in India they bow down to gods with six arms or elephant heads or whatever and their hair gets all sullied by praying to these gods so Jewish women will also get sullied by wearing wigs made out of it so they have to buy new synthetic wigs at once, the rabbi said, but Grandma said that was going too far.

The wheelchair is because of a car accident she was in many years ago but it certainly doesn’t keep her from getting around, she’s been to more countries than everyone in our family put together. She’s a famous lecturer and her own mother Erra (namely my great-grandmother who I call G.G.) is a famous singer and when Daddy gets around to enlisting for Iraq he’ll be a famous war hero and it’s up to me to decide what I want to be famous about but that’ll be no problem at all, fame runs in the family.

Unlike my father, whose mom was away hectoring in universities all the time when he was little, I have an excellent mom who decided to be stay-at-home out of her own free will and not because it was women’s destiny like in the olden days. Her name is Tess but I call her Mom. All children call their mothers Mom of course, and sometimes in the park another kid yells “Mom!” and my mother spins around, thinking it’s me. I can’t believe she could confuse me with anyone else. “It’s like when someone else’s cell phone has the same ring as yours,” she says. “You sort of snap to attention and then realise—oh, nope, it’s not me they want.”

It’s not like a cell phone. I’m unique. My voice is MY VOICE.

At kindergarten and elsewhere, I amaze everybody with my reading skills because Mom taught me to read when I was just a little baby. I’ve heard her tell the story a thousand times, how I’d be lying there in my crib and she’d flash these cards at me with words printed on them and pronounce the words, which she did for twenty-minute periods three times a day practically from the day I was born so I pretty much learned to talk and read at the same time and I can’t even remember when I didn’t know how to read. Mom says my vocabulary is awesome.

Dad’s away from dawn to dusk every weekday because he commutes more than two hours each way to work in Santa Clara at a job of programming computers in a very demanding capacity. He earns an excellent salary so we’re a two-car family—“We’ve got more cars than kids!” they sometimes say laughingly because Mom comes from a family where they had six kids and only one car. Her family was Catholic which meant my grandma wasn’t allowed to do family planning so she just kept on having babies until they got into deep financial waters and then she stopped. My father had a Jewish upbringing, so when he and Mom fell in love they decided to find a church halfway between Catholic and Jewish, and what they finally decided on was Protestant so they’re allowed to do family planning, basically what that means is the wife takes a pill and her husband can screw her as much as he likes without putting babies in her stomach, which is why I’m an only child. Mom wants to have another baby some day and Dad says they should be able to afford it a year or two down the line, but no matter how many kids they have I’m not worried about sibling rivalry, Jesus had a whole slew of brothers, too, and you never hear about what they did with their lives, there’s just no comparison.

Once a month my Dad goes to a men’s group where they talk about what it’s like to be a man nowadays since women started working. I’m not sure why he needs this group given the fact that my mother doesn’t work but anyhow they all take turns sitting in the hot seat and telling the truth about their problems and then they’re supposed to follow the group’s advice and if they disobey they’re punished with lots of push-ups and sometimes the whole group goes out and does manly things together like hiking and swearing and sleeping out in the wild and enduring mosquito bites because men have more stamina than women.

I’m sure glad I was born a boy because it’s far more unusual for boys to be raped than girls, except if they’re Catholic which we’re not. On the sobbingweb which I stumbled on one day when I asked Google for images of the war in Iraq you can see hundreds of girls and women being brutally raped for free and it says they were really and truly harmed in front of the cameras. They sure don’t look as if they’re enjoying themselves especially when they’re gagged and tied up. Sometimes the men are not only screwing them in their mouth or their vagina or their anus but also making as if to cut their nipples off with craft knives, although you don’t see the nipples actually getting cut off so it might just be make-believe. Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 terrorists also used craft knives when they flew the planes into the Twin Towers when I was three years old, I can still remember Dad calling me in to watch the towers falling down over and over again and saying “fucking Arabs” and drinking beer.

I’ve got my own little computer on my desk in my room, surrounded by all my stuffed toys and picture books, my drawings from kindergarten neatly taped to the walls with Magic ‘scotch tape that won’t tear the wallpaper when you take it off, and also my name in wooden letters on wheels—S-O-L—which my mom painstakingly covered with gold leaf so it would shine and shine. My computer allows me to play games all by myself because I don’t have any brothers and sisters which is the main reason my parents bought it for me, so I wouldn’t feel lonely. I can play Scrabble and checkers, snakes-and-ladders, and a bunch of idiotic little computer games for kids, where you get to shoot people who are climbing up the walls of buildings and watch them tumble to the ground and then you get a point, or whatever. But given that my room is right next to my parents’ room, and given that I’ve got perfect control of my body and can walk on tiptoe without making a sound, it’s a cinch for me to slip into Mom’s computer while she’s doing the housework downstairs and get on Google and learn about what’s happening in the real world.

My mind is huge. As long as I keep my body clean and the food circulating correctly, I can process any amount of information, I can be President Bush and God combined, guzzling google. Dad told me the word googol used to mean the biggest number you could imagine—one followed by a hundred zeros—but now it’s pretty much the same thing as infinity. You just have to download and you can get the girls being raped or screwed in the anus by horses or dogs or whatever else you want, click click click, with animal cum dripping out of their mouths which are half-smiling. Mom almost never uses her computer and also she sings as she does the vacuuming so how could she possibly hear me clicking with my right hand on the mouse as I put my left hand on my crotch and start to rub. My mind is racing my stomach is almost empty I’m an exciting machine. I’m not allowed to but it’s easy to be two people a thousand people plus all the animals, everything will be fine as long as it’s carefully controlled and timed and structured.

Did Dad . . .?

Good thing I’m a boy

The corpses of Iraqi soldiers lying in the sand is one of my favourite things to click on. It’s a whole slide show. Sometimes you can’t even tell what body parts you’re looking at. Torsos maybe? Or legs? They’re sort of wrapped in rips and strips of clothing and they’re lying in the sand, partially covered by the sand which has absorbed their blood, it’s all very dry. You can see American soldiers standing around them, looking down at them and thinking There but for the grace of God . . . was this a human being?

When I was really little and my dad worked right nearby in Lodi, at a job that didn’t have as good a salary but didn’t take as long to commute to, he used to sing to me at bedtime, giving me a paddle-whacking like his father used to give to him. Now I’m usually asleep by the time he gets home so he doesn’t sing to me anymore but I know he still loves me as much as before and he’s just working so hard to keep us up with a good standard of living and be able to meet the mortgage payments for a two-garage house in one of the cushiest real estates in the country. Mom says this is something to be proud of, even if I miss those bedtimes with my dad.

Anyway one of my favourite songs he used to sing was called ‘dry Bones’:

E-ze-kiel cried, “Dem dry bones”!
E-ze-kiel cried, “Dem dry bones”!
E-ze-kiel cried, “Dem dry bones”!
Oh hear the word of the Lord
The foot bone connected to the—leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the—knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the—thigh bone

He’d go paddle-whacking all the way up my body in semi-tones, then all the way down again. I used to love it, and I always think about that song when I see the dead Iraqi soldiers or the photographs of people sliced in two by a car accident, like wow, this is not reparable, not even by God when they get to heaven, you know what I mean? This torso is—all alone. This leg bone is connected to—nothing at all. It’s pretty scary because when you’re little and you watch old-fashioned cartoons on TV, you see characters like Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny or the Roadrunner getting crushed by heavy stones, whammed and blammed by cement mixers, sliced and diced by electric fans, or plummeting down cliffsides and splatting flat as pancakes on the highway, and then a couple of seconds later they’re all in one piece again and ready to go on to their next adventure. But with those Iraqi soldiers you can really tell there are no more adventures in store.

Mom is very much against violence, she gets emotional about it which is only natural because women are always more emotional than men. She’s just an extremely positive person and I don’t see any point in sullying her illusions. She supervises everything I watch on TV which means yes for “Pokemon” and no for “Inuyasha,” yes for “Gummi Bears” and no for “The Simpsons.” As far as movies go she says I’m still a bit too young for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, which is unbelievable. I remember she didn’t even want me to see Bambi when my friend Diane from kindergarten gave me the DVD for my fifth birthday, even if it’s just an old cartoon she was afraid I’d be upset about the scene where Bambi’s mother gets killed. She thinks I’m too young to know about death so I do my best to protect her. Last week we saw a dead sparrow at the edge of the road and she started stroking my hair and saying “It’s all right, darling, he’s in heaven with God now” and I clung to her leg and sobbed to make her feel better.

To her, Arnold Schwarzenegger is nothing but the governor of California. She’s never seen any of his films but I have thanks to my friend Brian or rather his parents. They’ve got lots of old videos in their rec room down in the basement, all three Terminators plus Eraser plus Collateral Damage, to say nothing of the complete collection of Star Wars and also Godzilla which is like a remake or rather a pre-make of 9/11 with the Manhattan skyscrapers tumbling down and New Yorkers screaming in panic and running around in all directions. We watch them to our heart’s content because Brian’s mom isn’t stay-at-home and his babysitter doesn’t mind as long as she can paint her toenails and talk to her boyfriend on her cell phone. Schwarzenegger as a robot is totally awesome, he’s unbeatable and indestructible, if his human skin surface gets damaged he’s got no qualms about cutting open his own arm or cutting out his own eyes with a scalpel, so I’m definitely not going to be jittery about my mole operation next July.

Dad is not an athlete or a sportsman by any stretch of the imagination but in the summertime he plays softball with guys his age in the neighbourhood. He takes it quite seriously because it was one of the things he used to share with his dad when they lived in New York City. He bought me a game called Base, which means there’s a T-ball stand you set the plastic ball on and you practise hitting it with a plastic bat, someone runs to pick up the ball for you and then you start all over again. During Dad’s softball games, Mom and I play Base together. Some of Mom’s friends are surprised to see her running to pick up the ball about a hundred and seventy-five times in a row, clapping and cheering for me and saying “Hooray, Sol! Good for you!” every single time. They think it must be boring for her but I know it’s not; it goes along with her love for me. Instead of boasting to them about my great destiny, she just shrugs and tells them it burns off calories.

I’ll be starting real school in the fall and I intend to listen to everything, record everything and get sterling grades while still keeping a low profile; for the time being I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide—Web. WWW turned upside down is MMM: apart from My Miraculous Mother to whom I’ve allowed brief glimpses, no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe.

I’ve only got one defect which is this mole on my left temple. It’s the size of a quarter, round and raised, brown and fuzzy. A tiny defect—but on the temple of Solomon, even tiny defects have to be eliminated. Mom’s making arrangements for it to be surgically removed in July. Dad’s a bit against it, but he’ll probably be in Iraq by then.

The war in Iraq has been over for almost a year now but lots of American soldiers are still getting killed over there and when Dad gets upset about this Mom tries to gently change the subject and get him thinking about something pleasant instead. “There’s no point in getting all het up about things you can’t change, Randall,” she says. “All we can do is try to keep this world as safe a place as possible, each at our own level. President Bush is doing his job, you’re doing yours and I’m doing mine.”

Mom’s job is to keep me safe and I think we’ve probably got the safest house on the planet. It’s childproofed, which is a word Mom explained to me a couple of weeks ago. (She always insists on explaining things to me as fully, honestly and clearly as possible, and the minute she tells me something I know it forever as if I’d invented it myself.)

“Our house is childproofed,” she said, “which means we’ve done everything in our power to make it safe for children.”

“And our fence is burglarproof,” said Dad, “which means we’ve done everything in our power to make it safe for burglars.”

“No, no,” said Mom. “There’s a difference between proof and proofed. An umbrella is rainproof, which means that rain can’t get through it.”

“And my whisky is 70-proof,” said Dad, “which means it’s forbidden to people over 70.”

Mom laughed because Dad kept on trying to make jokes, but the way she laughed made it clear that he should stop interrupting; then she went on telling me about how they childproofed the house. For instance, all the electrical outlets are covered over in case I try to stick my fingers into them and get electrocuted with my hair all sticking out in all directions and my eyes popping out of their sockets like a cat in a cartoon or like one of the guys that gets sent to the chair by President Bush for being on Death Row. There are soft plastic rounded corners added to every right-angle table and counter in the house so I won’t bang into them and get a deep gash in my head with lots of blood spurting out of it, then have to be rushed to the hospital and get stitches as my parents stand next to my bed, tearing their hair out with anguish and guilt. Also the burners to the stove have a special blocking mechanism so I can’t turn them on by accident and burn myself by sticking my hand into the flame or setting fire to the curtains, which would set fire to the whole house and leave me nothing but a little pile of charred flesh like an Iraqi soldier amidst the smoking ruins of our house, whereas Dad just took out a second mortgage on it. Even the toilet is childproofed so the lid won’t fall on my penis while I’m peeing, which I guess would really hurt. When I want to poop I have to call Mom to come and unhook a hook and let the lid down very carefully.

Mom knows about all this stuff thanks to a course she took on parent-child relationships. It wasn’t only about child-proofing, it was about all the other aspects, like how you should respect your children and listen to them and not treat them as if they were stupid idiots the way parents used to treat their children in the olden days. I must admit that Mom has never made me feel like an idiot. It’s like with Mary and Jesus. Mary would never go against any of Jesus’s wishes because she knew he had a special destiny cut out for him, so she just kept all these things in her heart and pondered them. The main difference is, I don’t plan to end up nailed to any old Cross.

Mom always comes to say prayers with me at bedtime. We invent a different prayer every night, we can ask God to help us bring peace to Iraq and make all the Iraqis believe in Jesus, or we can have a special thought for the health and happiness of our family members, or we can thank God for giving us such a nice neighbourhood to live in. Praying’s like a private conversation between you and God except you can’t really hear the answers, you’ve just got to trust in them.

“You’re the most precious thing in the world to me,” Mom said once as she was kissing me goodnight after prayertime.

“More precious than Dad?” I asked her.

“Oh, there’s no comparison,” she said, laughing, and I’m not sure what her laughter meant but I got the feeling it meant Yes. I think she basically sees Dad as the breadwinner in the family and a helper around the house, and they talk over important things together like whether they’ll be able to afford a new kitchen next year, but she’s also acutely aware of his defects. For instance, Dad’s the sort of person who sometimes loses his temper in an unpredictable way. Once the three of us went up to Sequoia National Park, it was a nice October day, we were all in a good mood and sort of ambling down the road hand in hand. The nature was so beautiful that it made Dad nostalgic for when he used to live out East, so he started trying to tell me about one time when he and his father drove up to Vermont together and slept out in a field, but because Mom loves us so much she’s always watching to make sure we don’t get run over by cars or trucks so the minute she hears one coming even half a mile away she tells us to be sure to stay on the edge of the road and this kept on interrupting Dad’s train of thought until finally he broke off and muttered, “Ah, forget it.” “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry,” said Mom, “please go on with your story. We just need to make sure Solly knows how important it is to keep off the road when he hears a car coming, that’s all.” But Dad refused to tell us about what happened that day in Vermont.

Or another time we were at home, they’d already had supper and I didn’t feel like having any so I didn’t join them at the table, and then we went upstairs to watch a non-violent family viewing film on TV together and in the middle of the film I started feeling a bit hungry so I asked Mom to bring me something to eat. She went down and got me a tray ready with milk and cookies, which I really appreciated because meanwhile she was actually missing the best part of the film, I said thank you but suddenly out of the blue Dad said in a loud voice: “Tess, it’s time you stopped waiting on this child hand and foot. You’re his mother, not his slave! Being his mother means that you’re in power, you’ve got the authority, not him, for Christ’s sake!” And Mom was so taken aback by his use of language especially the word Christ in vain that her hands were trembling when she set the tray down in front of me.

“Let’s talk about it later, Randall.” she said. In the parent-child relationship course they probably said it wasn’t a good idea for kids to sit in on their parents’ marital quarrels. Mom has taken all sorts of classes in meditation and positive thinking and relaxation and self-esteem, and she’s gotten really good at it so later on in bed I heard them talking things over and trying to pinpoint exactly when the tension started rising in the course of the evening.

“Maybe it reminded you of a scene from your own childhood?” Mom suggested very gently. Dad grunted. “Or maybe, in a way, you’re jealous because your own mom never took care of you the way I take care of Solly?” A few more grunts and reluctant murmurs and sighs from Dad. I guess they managed to iron things out and repair their marital relationship though I must say I’ve never heard them screwing despite the fact that my room is right next to theirs with just a plywood door in between. Maybe married people screw in silence unlike what you see on the Brutal XXX sites where they pant and roar.

Reading Group Guide

Guide by Barbara Putnam

1. Explore some of the possible meanings of the title. How does it grow or change as you read further in the novel? Is your first thought a geologic fracture? Perhaps blended with bloodlines? How are various meanings of failing, weakness, foibles, blame and vice relevant?

2. In the first section how is Sol a prism into the history of his family? Does this prism have its own fault line? What contributes to his idea that he is all powerful? His idea of heroic destiny can be seen cynically as a comment on his own absurd coddling and the internet and movie culture of apotheosized violence. Talk about these ideas. What do Sol’s own politics say about him and his world view? “Fortunately God and President Bush are buddies” (p. 5).

3. One of William Faulkner’s characters says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What are the consequences of the past in this book, both for those who seek it out and for those who try to ignore it? As the mystery uncoils, do you wonder why Sadie has such white-hot fervor?

4. What are we to make of Randall’s mercy killing of Marvin the bear? “‘It’s really hot, Marvin, isn’t it? . . . here, we’ll just try and get this thing off you.’ . . . I cut and slit. I slit his throat . . . He’s a really old bear. ‘Happy heaven, Marvin’ and then I wash my hands and feel better” (p. 148-9). This six-year-old’s violent act occurs after Sharon’s invasion of West Beirtu and Randall’s repudiation by his dear Arab friend Nouzha. His own parents bring the Arab-Israeli battle home to the kitchen. What are Randall’s reactions in a household of armed peace? How does his memory of Nouzha’s own purple birthmark offer him some hope for a better world in the future?

5. How does violence pervade the book? Are we to deduce that Nazi Germany sows the seeds for all the violence thereafter? Beirut? Palestine? And by extension Abu Ghraib?

6. Cruelty to children is another level of abuse in the book. Think of incidents involving Erra, Sadie, Randall and Sol. Are they exaggerated from a six-year-old’s point of view? The cruelty can be leveled by angry, disturbed parents, by other children (“So how’s life in the bathroom, Sadie?” (p. 177), by grandparents (nasty hardballs to Sol and a spanking , and Sadie’s grandmother’s calculated furies in Toronto.) The cruelty can also be mere insouciance, adults hearkening to their own lives first. “I say nothing, but I feel forlorn and somewhat swindled” says Sadie (p. 188) about Erra and Peter’s breaking a promise. What other incidents come to mind?

7. Where do children get their ideas about sex in the book? Were you surprised at their level of awareness and also misapprehension?

8. How does Huston create a surreal parallel world in the interior dream life of the children? As wild as the fantasies are, do they even begin to match the atrocities of war, abandonment, and terrorism? Do Sol’s obsessions with perversion reflect a blighted world?

9. How do Erra’s different names symbolize the upheavals and recombinations of identities in wartime Europe? “Can I sing in German again if it turns out I’m Ukrainian whereas I thought I was Polish?” (p. 294).

10. Why is it that songs without words are Erra’s signature style? We recall that Johann/Janek was brutally beaten for speaking Polish in a camp. ‘so after that I stopped talking Polish. They tore my tongue out by the roots’ (p. 276). Erra/Kristina herself had nightmares of tongues torn out, “Still moving, their roots waving helplessly in the air, like tiny lobsters” (p. 276). Kristina says, “I learn to sing without words. I make sounds in the back of my throat, pushing my voice up higher and higher until it stabs the sky. I go down with it into my deepest self where the lava bubbles and boils” (p. 278). Are we reminded of the Rilke epigraph to the novel? “What was it—that burning, that amazement, that endless insufficiency, that sweet, that deep, that radiant feeling of tears welling up? What was it?” Some of Huston’s writing about Erra’s music recalls James Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues” and Eudora Welty in “Powerhouse.” How are we transported through words into the music?

11. How is Janek both a victim and a perpetrator of a fault line? Trace his story. Did his fate seem inevitable? How was he a nemesis for both Peter and Sadie? And perhaps Erra?

12. Talk about some of the funny moments. In a book of opinionated, zesty survivors, humor is often a protective device or a lifeline to another character and sometimes a way of a character’s digging in heels about who he or she is.

13. Images of soldiers recur throughout the book. Johann, on arrival in Kristina’s town, is described as standing there “like a lead soldier, implacable, impervious and indifferent” (p. 266). Kristina’s teddy bear with the cymbals marches woodenly like a soldier. Randall’s warrior robots, efficient because they have no human feelings, “no anger, no fear, no pity, no remorse” are blasted by Sadie because they sound like “The perfect Nazi—the perfect hard, steely, emotionless macho male” (p. 54-55). Even the figures in the clock tower, as Kristen recalls, emerge with movements that “are human movements, only jerkier and the expression on their faces is unchanging. They’re not alive” (p. 235).Are military people or goals ever regarded with respect or admiration in the book? (Sol, of course, wants his father to gain fame and glory for the family as a soldier in Iraq.)

14. How did Mrs. Webern figure in the story as recalled by Kristina and Greta? (See p. 72, 243, 296). What was Lothar’s role in the chain of events? How does treachery on the neighbor level wrench our hearts sometimes more than on the larger scale of nations and armies?

15. Could we imagine a whole different set of “fault lines,” starting with Sol and working backwards through his mother’s lineage?

16. Do you think Huston could have taken the story yet another generation backward, i.e. to the childhood of Kristina/Erra’s father, who would have been sic during World War I?

17. What, if anything, does the congenital naevus (birthmark) symbolize in this novel?

18. Did reading Fault Lines change the ways in which you think about your own family history, or the construction of your own identity?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The German Trauma by Gitta Sereny; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; The Life Before Us (Madame Rosa) by Romain Gary; See Under: Love by David Grossman; Beatus Ille by Antonio Munos Molina; The Book of Dina by Herbjørg Wassmo; Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston