The Figgs

By Jay Smith

by Ali Bryan
Freehand Books
2018/$21.95/300 pp.

The Figgs are a family ripe with dysfunctionality—all adult children live at home, working dead-end jobs, and their bickering is full of profanity. Yet parents June and Randy Figg remain oblivious, at least until dynamics are upturned by the arrival of an unexpected grandson. Their son, Derek, who works at a Calgary recycling depot, has impregnated the carpet saleswoman next door to his workplace. When baby Jaxx makes his way into the world, the birth mother, who has told no one of his impending arrival, wants nothing to do with him and hands him over to his father. Derek is forced to reconcile his new identity as a single father, which in turn forces a series of revelations about parenting, responsibility and the nature of family among those close to him—the entire Figg clan.

Calgary writer Ali Bryan does a deft job of painting the human charm of the family. The Figgs is less the jolly romp into situational comedy that the book jacket appraisals suggest, but the author ably creates nuanced characters that induce laughter. Don’t be surprised if this gets a Stephen Leacock nomination.

The marrow of The Figgs is a meditation on the nature of parenting. The matriarch, June, reads somewhere that adopted babies cry out for their biological mothers after they are born—and, it is suggested, figuratively for the rest of their lives. As a woman adopted as an infant, June is the character most centrally obsessed with the origin stories behind adoptions. She carts around a book in her purse entitled Everyone Has a Birth Mother (also one called You Were Chosen, for what it’s worth). Yet maybe because so many of these thoughts are filtered through June, who is a sentimental and true-to-form middle aged woman (she’s infuriatingly bad at using the internet to do research on the Figgs’ family trees, for instance,) the reader gets a slightly skewed perspective. Every adoption is a compromise of allegiances, but raising one’s own child—as Derek chooses to do—is, according to June, the highest familial responsibility.

This is to say the novel seems to land on a fairly conservative and sentimentalized version of family, something perfect that gets muddled up and is then imperfect but still lovable. Moreover, given all the talk in the world about children being raised by families who are not their own (particularly Indigenous families), the conversation about adoption in this novel takes place in a social vacuum. Even a passing remark on the greater social context of adoption issues—such as the Sixties Scoop—would have added much. But the limitation of telling the story with such fidelity from the perspective of a lower-middle-class family ties Bryan’s hands from adding this complexity. Nonetheless, The Figgs is a wholly enjoyable read.

Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer.

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