Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there… Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”
“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline… She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”
It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small. The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon. This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher. But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life. He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston. “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts. In bits and pieces. Out of nowhere.”
In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful. It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger. He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations. “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings… It marked and branded you. And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”
The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from. “Mom, I don’t need a house. I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio. I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love. I have no interest in getting married and settling down… (This house was) a nice place to grow up in. But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult. You grow up. You move on.”
So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother. But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents. In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life. Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.
Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel. There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage. Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult: “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”
Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead. In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be. This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events. (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred? And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)
The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place. The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence. Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.
The great revelation perhaps never did come. Virginia Woolf
The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation. This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order. Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.
“A lovely and compelling debut.” Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.