I hadn't even been aware of this short novel -- You Went Away by Timothy Findley -- until I came across it at a book sale recently. It seems as if Findley was taking a bit of a breather from the monumental Headhunter, though in fact he also completed The Piano's Man's Daughter prior to You Went Away.
At any rate, the conceit of the novel is that a handful of photos from an old album are on display, and the novel is linking them all together. As many family members seem to vanish from a number of the photos (without returning later), the overall theme of the book is that loss is inevitable (though some people seem to hasten the inevitable). Generally, the "going away" in the title refers to someone leaving for another country or dying (the ultimate foreign country, I suppose), though in one case it means someone putting so much emotional distance between another that they become strangers -- and thus are "lost" to each other.
While there are nowhere near as many characters as there are in Headhunter, there are still quite a few to keep track of. The family at the centre of the novel is comprised of Graeme and Mi, their son, Michael, and daughter, Bonnie. Graeme's mother, Ellen, is a relatively prominent character at the start of the novel, but less so after Graeme enrolls in the Air Force at the start of WWII. At first, Graeme goes by himself to Camp Borden (near Barrie, ON) but eventually the family uproots to be near him. Mi makes friends with the other people at Camp Borden, particularly Ivan, Graeme's roommate, and another couple, Roy and Eloise. They also get to know the residents of a rooming house where Mi stays (there is no special housing for married men at Camp Borden!).
It probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Graeme fails as a father and as a husband, though perhaps somewhat surprising he is a bit more successful as an enlisted man, even if he is a bit too old to be sent to the front (or at least in the early phases of the war). While the focus is different, there are some echoes of Roy's The Tin Flute, though the war emerges late in that novel, as opposed to right up front in You Went Away. While the war is only after half over when Findley ends this novel, he still features a number of widows to drive home the costs of war on the home front. Despite all this suffering, there is one couple who genuinely seem happy and even commit to having a baby (in the face of a world gone mad). In that sense, this contains just a few more uplifting moments than many of Findley's novels.
Many sections of the novel are told from the perspective of Mi, and the reader can even directly read her inner thoughts. Findley does just a bit of head-hopping, but the novel doesn't work quite as well when told from Graeme's or Matthew's perspectives. Fortunately, these forays outside Mi's head are fairly rare. On the whole this is a fairly melancholy piece, though there are a few flashes of humour or at least dry wit. One of my favourite passages concerns a nurse who is staying at the rooming house along with Mi: "Just last week, she had come home from the Crazy Wing so tense, she behaved as if someone had handed her the entire war and had said: here -- deal with this."
Overall, I'd say You Went Away is for readers who like sad stories or those who want to immerse themselves in stories about Canada's role in WWII and the impact on the home front. And of course readers who want to savour all of Findley's novels and short stories.