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Sybil Baker

Sybil Baker is the author of four books of fiction, including While You Were Gone (IPPY Silver Medal). Her work of nonfiction, Immigration Essays, was the 2018-2019 first year reading selection at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. A UC Foundation Professor at UTC, Sybil is also a faculty member for VCFA’s international low-residency MFA program and teaches at the Yale Writer’s Workshop.

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"While You Were Gone is an open-hearted and complex story of an amazing family, told with such confidence that I could not put it down. Sybil Baker has the enviable ability to populate her work with characters who feel so nuanced and real that you can't believe that you haven't always known these people, that they haven't always been a part of your life. And when I finished this beautiful story, I found myself unable to forget them."

– Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang and Perfect Little World

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While You Were Gone

Deceptively Understated: A Review of Sybil Baker’s While You Were Gone

08/07/19

While You Were Gone follows the lives of three sisters over a period of 15 years, from 1995 to 2010. It is, more than the history of a family, a portrait of adulthood in general. The drama is primarily domestic and psychological: there are no earth-shattering events, no dramatic plot twists. We are witnessing the regular lives of three normal, unremarkable people unfold gently, punctuated by all the ordinary milestones - marriages, births, deaths, break-ups, career changes. Throughout all this, adulthood is depicted as a quiet, understated process of slowly letting go of the dreams of youth, at times painful and at times peaceful.

The middle sister, Shannon, opens the novel as a teenager with grand ambitions. She wants nothing more than to go to college and escape life in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which she sees as leading inevitably to mediocrity and failure. Out there, she imagines, revolutions are brewing, social changes are waiting to be documented. But Shannon’s youthful dream of “changing the world” fades little by little: the job that was to be her springboard towards a career in journalism turns out to be dead-end; an unenthusiastic marriage proves unable to measure up with the idealized image she has formed of Ben, her old crush from college. Almost unnoticeably, every small failure results in one goal adjustment after the other, until Shannon’s aspirations, turned solidly domestic and middle-class, bear no resemblance to the idealistic dreams she started out with: “She no longer dreamed of that kind of life. She wanted love, and, yes, a child, but with a proper husband, and a job that she enjoyed.”

In contrast with Shannon, the youngest sister, Paige, seems to be living the dream - at least for a while. She writes music, goes on tours with her band, and is apparently on her slow but steady way to fame, all while living the life of the quintessential rock star: drugs, drinking, partying and multiple short-lived affairs with anonymous women. But when she is fired from her band, she has no choice but to return to her hometown. Here she meets an extremely talented but reclusive musician who refuses to record his songs and wishes to die in obscurity; his music, he believes, is only alive when he performs it. This causes Paige to have her own epiphany, one of the fine moments in the book where a personal truth expands beyond the limits of the psychological, reaching cosmic dimensions:

Was that what she was afraid of, dying in obscurity? He was right: sooner or later, everyone did. One day even earth would end. One day everything and everyone would be forgotten. Why did it matter one way or the other what her—or even her band’s—brief spot on the world amounted to? Only moments like this mattered, and they would be secret and unknowable to everyone except her and Billy.

Claire has always been the responsible one. She cared for her mother as she was dying and then took on a parental role for her younger sisters; she married early, had two children, and crafted a successful career for herself, all exactly as planned. The problem is that after years of being the person who has done everything by the book, she no longer knows who she is outside her roles - mother, daughter, worker. She somewhat inexplicably starts an affair with a young intern at her company. It is in the intensity of feeling that he causes in her that she finds what she thinks is a kind of re-encounter with her own self, unmediated by roles and responsibilities and domestic life:

...now she knew there was something unnamable, unseen. It was not the accretion of days, the small moments people claimed that mattered, it was not the daily patterns that varied so little from human to human. It was not life. It was not death. It was a force of energy that made those things feel small and sad and ordinary. It wasn’t Joseph even, it was what Joseph had brought her, what she was seeking.

Without giving away too much of the plot, all members of the family carry secrets. But the function of the secrets is not so much to create narrative tension as it is to further our understanding of the characters’ psychologies. Family, for all three sisters, is where they come for comfort, the place they inevitably return to as their life aspirations turn out to be not what they expected, yet it also represents the locus where the individual self is in danger of losing its distinctness from others. For all the characters, secrets, benign or not, symbolize their attempts at carving up a space that is only their own.

The book’s writing style is as deceptively understated as its plot. It is in the subtle depiction of change and evolution that Baker excels. A sentence or a paragraph can cover weeks or months, depicting small, seemingly insignificant actions which add up little by little into something greater that can only be fully grasped once the book is finished. The structure of the novel is just as carefully crafted. Time is measured out from one birthday of the three sisters’ father to the next. In the first three quarters of the book the narration moves slowly between birthdays; after the father’s death, time is compressed, the birthdays succeeding each other at shorter and shorter distances and losing their significance as a marker of time in the sisters’ minds. This is both a reflection of how time seems to pass faster as one gets older, and a bittersweet manifestation of how all characters have grown and let go of the past.

What is missing from While You Were Gone is a broader awareness of the social and historical environment in which the three sisters live and of the way it affects their lives. Here and there, short passages tantalizingly give us glimpses into what the novel might have been. Shannon’s dream of being an award-winning journalist fades gradually because she is “born in the wrong era”: no grand revolutions for her to document, printed press dwindling away with the rise of the Internet. The novel is populated with places heavy with the history of the Old South, with sites of lynchings and Civil War battles, with intricate family trees which reach out to the time of the plantations, but this setting does little more than providing the background for the family drama. Claire’s attempt to reconcile her motherhood with her role as a career woman occasion some meditations on the 1990s’ feminist dream of “having it all”, while Shannon’s visit to a fundamentalist Christian dentist briefly throws her into an inner monologue on privilege and difference which functions to reveal her general apathy on the issues more than it does to make any specific statement about them.

Ultimately, everything converges back into the consciousness of the characters. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, Claire, in a desperate state, seeks refuge in the cemetery. This is a place where the ancestors of her family are buried, which carries the graves of lynchers and Confederate soldiers. She has, for a brief moment, the sense that her entire known world is weeping with her: “Can’t you hear them all weeping? [...] All the dead people. Soldiers, Indians, slaves. They’re all here beneath us." But this moment represents the climax of a personal crisis, a defining point of Claire’s trajectory as a character — the weight of history is used as a device for emphasizing the dimension of Claire’s sorrow, not the other way around.

But despite all this, the relatively confined world of While You Were Gone never feels claustrophobic. Although made up of mostly mundane events, the arcs of all three sisters are gripping and even suspenseful as the reader wonders whether any of them will be able to successfully negotiate a workable path between their ideals and the reality of the world they live in. The book will resonate deeply with anyone who’s tried to navigate through adulthood, changing expectations, failures and disappointments; indeed, I would recommend it not only for the quality of its writing, but also for the cathartic effect that reading it can produce.

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