Christmas is, by any measure of popular culture, supposed to be a time when we cleave close to our families, joining us together in an unmitigatedly positive festival of joy, love and inclusivity.
It’s a tantalising ideal, all right, but as many of us, even those of us in functionally dysfunctional who love each other know all too well, it very rarely matches the reality on the ground.
Just how great the gulf is between imagined familial connections and what actually transpires, is made abundantly clear in Francesca Hornak’s insightfully-well written novel Seven Days of Us, in which the Birch family are gathering together for Christmas, for the first time in years and under exceptional circumstances, at their ancestral home in Norfolk.
The childhood home of garrulous matriarch Emma, who is struggling with a recent adverse health diagnosis, one she has yet to announce to the family, is going to be home, such as it is in its fallen glory, to Emma, food critic and frustrated ex-war correspondent journalist Andrew, reality TV-producing daughter Phoebe and her elder sister Olivia, a doctor who is fresh back from dealing with a Haag Virus epidemic in Liberia and who has to stay quarantined for seven days with those she is supposed to love, for an entire week.
“Of course every Christmas is a quarantine of sorts. The out-of-office set, shops lie dormant, and friends migrate to the miserable towns from whence they came. Bored spouses cringe at the other’s every cough (January is the divorce lawyer’s busy month – go figure). In this, the most wonderful time of the year, food is the saviour. It is food that oils the wheels between deaf aunt and mute teenager. It is food that fills the cracks between siblings with cinnamon-scented nostalgia. And it is food that gives the guilt-ridden mother purpose, reviving Christmases past with that holy trinity of turkey, gravy and cranberry.” (PP. 10-11)
It’s a prospect everyone is dreading, even Emma who on the surface loves to gather her family close to her.
She and Andrew, like most amicable couples of longstanding, aren’t at each other’s throats but nor are they as amorous and utterly rapt in each company’s like old letters from their courtship days that Andrew discovers in the attic reveals they once were.
Similarly the once-tight sisterly bonds of childhood, when Olivia and Phoebe would hide time capsules under loose floorboards and conspiratorially laugh at each other’s jokes, is long gone, replaced by the older sister’s intensity and aloofness and the younger’s bright, flighty, exuberant approach to life, one which includes a fiance, George, who everyone agrees, even Phoebe deep down if she’s honest with herself, is not a good match for her.
So it is that these four nominally close, but actually close family members, each with their own secrets, none of which thankfully are delivered or addressed in any kind of soap operatic melodramatic fashion, come together for a time of Waitrose-delivered food, enforced geographic closeness and a sense that is is time to be endured, not enjoyed.
Rather than being some over-the-top series of clashes and screamed revelations, The Seven Days of Us is a real and authentically-human exploration of family dynamics that never pretends everything is perfect but which doesn’t succumb to nihilist despair either as so many books about families do.
Hornak’s novel gets it just right – there is tension and an unwillingness to draw close and heal the wounds of multiple years, all of which are on full display during the quarantine, especially when unexpected guests show up, but there is also a sense of quiet longing, a want and need to recapture the bonds and closeness of past years coupled with an unease that that may not be possible.
In other words, it’s all very real and true and you get a sense when you’re reading Seven Days of Us, which is turns warm, charming, despairing, sad, hopeful and full of possibilities, that this is how a real family works through its collective emotional baggage.
Never perfectly and never in a clean-cut linear fashion but if the willingness is there somewhere, and despite initial thoughts, feelings and appearances it is there in large measure for the Birchs, it is very real and tantalising possibility.
“Andrew stayed sitting on the sofa, thinking. His oldest daughter, who usually shunned him with evasive eyes and brief answers, had opened up. They had had something amounting to a real conversation …” (P. 283)
Hornak expertly, and with great compassion and understanding, and a real gift for making characters feel knowable, accessible and relatable, brings this journey from estrangement, none of which is deliberate but there nonetheless, to a sense of family again alive in the most delightfully grounded of ways.
There are no sudden epiphanies, no lightning bolt moments of emotional introspection that results in some cheesecake-accented Golden Girls group hug; rather, a simple but growing reacquaintance with each other that comes from both enforced proximity but also the inability of secrets to stay that way when all people really want, even, if it’s a deeply-buried impetus, to reconnect with each other.
Each chapter has one of the characters as its focus, along with their initial geographic location in the house, and this gives us a chance to appreciate what is going through their heads and hearts at the time but also how it relates to the rest of the family members.
It’s very hard, and honestly, why would you fight it, not to fall in love with each of the Birch family members who are so real, so human and so desperate to be close to each other that you feel as if they could be members of your own family, warts and all.
Seven Days of Us is a real pleasure to read – funny, wise, insightful, heartfelt and real, a book that never once makes out that there are silver bullet solutions to the many challenges families face in staying close, or if that is rent asunder, pulling back together again, but which offers real hope, the kind that actually looks possible, that being a family, an actual close, sharing caring family, can happen, at Christmastime or anytime really, and that it can transform your life when you most need that to take place.