It can sometimes be difficult to describe what a book was ‘about’.
While some might centre on an earth shattering event, others carry on quietly, with the reader bobbing along in the current.
There is no crime to be solved or death to the avenged.
While Commonwealth might include a tragedy to compare with any others, this is by no means the centre of the book. In essence, Commonwealth is about family, and the tensions, intimacies and affections that make each family unique, while in some ways so similar.
The story starts with a meeting that sets the scene for the rest of the book – when a husband meets the wife of another man, who is hosting their baby’s Christening.
As a result of the meeting, two families are blown apart, to resettle in a new and complicated form.
However, The Brady Bunch, this is not. There are simmering resentments from the children towards their parents, who upended their lives, allegiances formed and broken, sometimes more than once.
Patchett is wonderful at evoking the strange combination of simplicity and complexity that is childhood, a time when power lies elsewhere, but the impact of the decisions made by the all-powerful adults is felt strongly.
In Commonwealth, each of the six children has their own ways of dealing with change thrust upon them, and with each other. However, the way they approach the arrival of their new stepsisters and brothers is with a level of acceptance. To the children, the new stepbrothers and sister just ‘are’. Later, this acceptance develops into affection for some.
In an interesting manoeuvre, Patchett highlights the revealing and sometimes exploitative nature of storytelling when she presents a story-within-the-story.
I really enjoyed reading Commonwealth, for its honest and raw representation of childhood and family relationships, both through trauma and tragedy and the everyday of hot summers, familial frustrations and small moments of kindness.