There are two very powerful myths most of us at some level buy into, given that they are myths that permeate the modern world. The first is that we can always reinvent ourselves; that we are the sole authors of our destinies, and can remake ourselves into whoever we want to be. This first message is constantly peddled in self-help books aimed at women and in inspirational business books aimed at men. A second myth is that we have a special role and a special partner we just have to find in life; once we find that special career or partner—the fulfilling job and the unique soulmate—we’ll just know. And don’t settle for less.
The undercurrent of these two myths in society makes for deeply unsettled people. If I’m happy with a job or a spouse right now, it’s fine. But if I’m unhappy… maybe I should just reinvent myself and find the actual real thing I should be doing and the real partner I should be with. So rather than committing to the task of being with that person or vocation, the impulse is always to flee and start again.
In the opening pages of Fiorella De Maria’s latest novel, We’ll Never Tell Them, we meet Kristjana. She is a young woman running from something. She does what many of us fantasize about doing: walks out on a job, a boyfriend, everything. Throwing her phone into the river, she sets off for Israel to start again.
It’s working in an Israeli hospital where she meets elderly Leo Hampton and through him, Liljana. Leo is dying at the end of a long life marked by suffering and trauma. As he reaches out for someone to speak to, he finds Kristjana, also reaching out, striving to find purpose. He begins to tell the story of his beloved Maltese mother, Liljana.
Born into an unfriendly world with an absent father and mentally ill mother, Liljana is placed the mercy of a number of people, ranging from cruel to well-meaning. To all of them, she is merely a victim, a girl who must be fixed in some way. And so she goes from colonial Malta to Edwardian England and back, following the plans others have laid out for her life. As she grows to adulthood, she begins to take more control of her life. But then additional suffering and heartbreak arrives during World War I when she falls in love with a soldier under her nursing care in Malta.
Fiorella De Maria shows how trauma and dysfunction cannot simply be shrugged off, and how it can affect multiple generations. This isn’t to paint a picture of humans as helpless victims who cannot control their actions, but to show that woundedness is a reality which has to be faced by everyone. While not many of us will have undergone the kind of trauma that Liljana has, suffering is inescapable. As our Pope Emeritus once wrote, “Life is not only happiness and games: it is pain, temptation, and failure. And yet in all this it is beautiful if it is supported by love and possesses a hope that transcends the present moment. If we cannot show a picture of life in which even pain, hardship and death are meaningful and belong to a larger whole, then we cannot rehabilitate human existence.”
Near the end of the book, Leo tells Kristjana, “You crave adventure because nothing truly terrible has ever happened to your generation.” It’s a statement that stings. It’s not entirely true, but there is an element that connects with reality. My own generation is often obsessive about presenting a façade of adventure and authenticity, trying to force our lives into a narrative that seems more “real” than the mundane reality that actually is. This often presents itself in externals; faux vintage filters on our digital photographs, dressing in vintage styled clothing, taking up hobbies such as canning or brewing that would have been necessities for a previous generation.
Kristjana’s final realization is that in disappearing into Leo and Liljana’s life, she isn’t so much running from reality as taking shelter in this past which does not truly belong to her. But she has also been a gift to Leo; by listening to him and accompanying him in his last days. As he relates the stories of his past, it allows him to seek peace at the end of a long life. In the mutual giving of a relationship, both he and Kristjana find courage. And it is this courage of embracing the uncertainty of the future which inspires Kristjana—and hopefully the reader as well—to look ahead with clarity and acceptance, without forgetting the lessons of the past.