Come Back is Rudy Wiebe’s first novel in more than a decade, and it is perhaps his most intensely personal work. (Like the character Gabe in Come Back, Wiebe also lost his son to suicide). The writing is elegiac in tone and the novel, as is to be expected from Wiebe, is stylistically experimental and challenging. Much of the story unfolds through the tormented Gabe’s fragmentary and often inchoate thoughts, lists, and perceptions, left behind to be deciphered by the aged and confused Hal.
Memory is a slippery thing, and there are no solid surfaces or straight lines through this story which goes like this…
Twenty-five years after his eldest son, Gabe, committed suicide, retired professor and recent widower Hal Wiens sees Gabe walking along Whyte Avenue in the snowy Edmonton spring. Following a fruitless chase, Hal returns home alone to confront the considerable archive of Gabe’s personal writings, which has been meticulously organized by Hal’s late wife. After years of repressing his memories of Gabe, Hal’s uncanny near-encounter drives him to try to comprehend what led his son to end his life.
What Hal finds among the dusty notebooks, day planners, and loose-leaf scribblings is an indication of the depth and progression of despair Gabe experienced in his early twenties as he tried to forge meaning out of his existence, his relationship to God, his connection to other people, and especially his troubling romantic obsession with 13-year-old Ailsa, who seems to represent for Gabe an ideal of unreachable purity.
Emerging from the disorder of the narrative, though, is a meditation on belief. A deeply religious Mennonite man (like the author himself), Hal laments his dead son’s constricted view of the world:
Could you not at least dream – act – a few present seconds into beauty? They were there; daily you recorded a foretaste of some of them; why could you not believe, and act?”
Hal’s feelings of guilt lead him to question his own role in his son’s doubt about the possibility of good and the power of redemption. Fittingly, we’re left to wonder about the likelihood of him ever really understanding why Gabe made his final choice.
About Rudy Wiebe
Rudy Wiebe, Professor Emeritis in the English department at the University of Alberta, is the author of more than 20 works of fiction, non-fiction, and drama. He is best known for his novels set in the Canadian prairies and his representations of First Nations people. He was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Fiction twice, for The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (1994) and won the Charles Taylor Prize for Of This Earth: a Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (2006). In April, Come Back was awarded the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize at the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts. At the Alberta Literary Awards in May, it was awarded the Charles Bugnet Award for Fiction. Wiebe is an Officer of the Order of Canada and lives in Edmonton with his wife, Tena.