When does a memoir become fiction? The process can be as simple as changing names and meddling a bit with the chronology, or as complex as devising a structure, inventing characters to inhabit it and creating the imperatives that drive them through the ensuing events. When an author isn't content with the first option but prefers to sidestep the second, you have that publisher's compromise, the "semi-autobiographical novel," which can be engaging and winsome, disarming and candid, but is still an anomalous work in transition between one form and another.
The author of two previous books and the daughter of the late James Jones, Kaylie Jones lets her readers chose the category they prefer. If they're interested in an intimate account of expatriate life in the Paris household of a well-known American writer, the author obliges with decade-by-decade chapters on her progress from a precociously willful 4-year-old to an accomplished young adult; a passage with somewhat more than the usual ration of crisis to serenity.
Without their daughter Channe's knowledge, her parents had spent a tense year battling French bureaucracy for the right to adopt the orphaned child of friends. After the boy's foster mother committed suicide, the distraught father had placed Benoit in a children's home. Overcome with remorse, he called the American writer who immediately set in motion the elaborate machinery that would provide the author with a brother almost exactly her own age.
Jones' story begins the moment the forlorn and frightened French boy is delivered to the household; it ends 20-odd years later and an ocean away, on the day Benoit, long since called William Willis, becomes an American citizen. There are hints of mystery surrounding Benoit's true parentage, though the curiosity is all on Channe's part. As soon as he overcomes his initial wariness, Benoit adopts the name Billy in emulation of his new father and assiduously sets out to become a perfect example of a junior Willis, an ambition he realizes every way but professionally. When the book ends, William Willis is a banking trainee in New York, leaving literature to his father's genetic heir, Channe.
In between, with only a few excursions back and forth in time, is a linear recollection of the writer's slow acceptance of her brother, an accommodation that deepens into a mutual and enduring love. Made inseparable by a heady combination of tragedy, good will and need, these two entirely different children find a precarious security in one another. Despite the fact that Channe is indulged not only by her parents but by an extraordinarily devoted Portuguese governess, she is never quite permitted to forget that she's only a sojourner in France; a foreigner despite her fluency in the language and her passionate desire to blend smoothly into her environment. French to the last chromosome, Benoit is thrust abruptly into the bosom of an American family, to which he adapts by imitation, accepting with his entire heart and soul the nationality his sister longs to set aside.
After the Willises return to the United States when both children are teen-agers, it's "Billy" who has the easier time, while Channe responds to her dislocation by rebelling on every possible level; a considerable challenge given the permissive attitudes of her parents. Suddenly the roles are reversed, as the once-domineering teacher becomes the reluctant student of her brother's eager and facile adjustment.
In addition to the brother-sister bond, Jones also explores the powerful nature of her connection with the Portuguese governess, a relationship that evolves from the natural affection of a nursemaid for the child in her care to a highly charged and almost obsessive interdependency. Cementing the fragments is the overriding theme of filial love between a father and daughter, shown not only in the selection of incident and the definition of character, but in the writer's own choice of profession. The last chapter, a fictionalized diary purporting to be the journal kept by Benoit's mother just before his birth, offers a provocative sample of Jones' versatility in a more objective mode.
A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES
\o7 by Kaylie Jones \f7 Bantam Books
Cloth $19.95, Paper $7.95, 192 pages
Next: \o7 Carolyn See reviews Sue Harrison, "Mother Earth, Father Sky" (Doubleday).\f7