The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs: A Novel
Janet Peery’ s second novel, The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs invites the reader into a tale of familial dysfunctionality that resonates on several levels. First, if you have a family, you know that the snapshots of happiness spewed over social media belie the truth: Families are synonymous with power struggles, jealousies, fights, and rivalries. Hopefully they are equally pillars of support during rough times. They are shared history and intermittent intimacy stretching over our entire lives. The Campbell family embodies all of these elements. From the traditional partnership of the parents—a despotic retired judge patriarch and a conciliatory, homemaker matriarch—to the ageing children, the problems and virtues of this family are Everyman’s.
Second, the list of the Campbell’s dysfunctionalities strikes a chord of recognition (and possibly relief), even if one’s own family list differs: “Public intoxication (all four sons), drug offenses (three of them), DUIs (three), firearms violations (one son), speeding tickets (no firm count, as their father would fix their tickets), habitual lawsuits and embarrassing public confrontations (one daughter), foreclosures (same daughter, two sons), divorces (all of them, even Doro the good daughter).”
The source of the Campbell’s skeleton-in-the-closet is addiction. With the exception of the eldest daughter Doro, whose main vice is an occasional cigarette, all the children struggle with this demon in its various forms. But the range and need of the youngest Campbell, Billy, who is already weakened by HIV, engender fury or compassion in his family, depending on their character. Billy is often the catalyst who brings out the unified strength of the family as he endangers his life throughout the novel (“Painkillers, black tar, methadone, drink—any substance at hand. Cough syrup, cigarettes, codeine, cocaine. On a lean day even candy.”).
Peery’s well-written prose draws us into the complexities of the Campbell family and their relationships. The oldest sister Doro with her competent, level-headed contribution to each family crisis; Billy at the other end, providing humour and enthusiasm while he generates crises. The middle sister ClairBell with her perpetual aggrievement, currying favor with the father, jealousy rendering her incapable of compassion for her terminally sick brother Billy.
Two other sons, struggling with the insecurities sown by their father’s dominating criticism. The mother Hattie, skating desperately between the needs of her husband and Billy, the rare determination to follow her own will constantly encumbered by the will of others. Despite the multifaceted complexity of each character, versions of each exist in so many families.
The characters of the women and Billy are painted beautifully, each a relatable concoction of human characteristics. Even ClairBell’s selfish machinations produce a mix of emotions and reactions. The heterosexual men in the story seem less nuanced: the personalities of the brothers Gideon and Jesse are not explored in equal depth and it is hard to like the father. His love for Hattie might have redeemed him if it wasn’t quashed by his selfish tyranny over her. Just as appreciation for his selfless agreement to live a little longer for her sake is undermined by the revelation towards the end of the book, when we discover that the father had distributed Darvon to his children decades earlier during a tragic event: “And he gave a pill to everybody, even Billy. He told us it would take the edge off.” Does this suggest that the father is responsible for the lifelong, addictive struggles of his children?
The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs is an intriguing, relatable read, not a gripping one. The beautiful writing creates a feeling of connection and understanding with many of the characters as we delve into their different perspectives, while the plot progresses in an unhurried fashion, much like the “plot” of any real family.
Despite their many issues, what makes the Campbell family fundamentally loving and supportive, coming together in times of need? This is an interesting question, given the intrusive and destructive nature of addiction in our society today. Perhaps the answer is love. The parents both loved their children, although Hattie’s love seems purer, unencumbered with ego, no strings attached. If the connection between that first pill to “take the edge off” and future addictions can be laid at the father’s door, surely the love that keeps this family together can be laid at the mother’s.