Out of Touch  by Haleh Agar: Delivers a warm and uplifting message of hope, however messy family life can be - book review -

Two siblings, who became estranged after their fractured childhood, are forced to confront long-buried tensions when a letter arrives from their dying father.

Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 11:51 am
Updated Wednesday, 22nd April 2020, 11:52 am
Out Of Touch
Out Of Touch

Out of Touch

Haleh Agar

By Pam Norfolk

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Two siblings, who became estranged after their fractured childhood, are forced to confront long-buried tensions when a letter arrives from their dying father.

But can the brother and sister ever truly resolve the conflicts and traumas of the past… and rediscover the powerful bonds that traditionally hold families together?

In a clever and compelling debut novel that impresses with its quiet power and elegant, sensitive storytelling, Canadian-born Haleh Agar brings us a penetrating exploration of a dysfunctional family, and the secrets, betrayals, insecurities and feelings of guilt that have torn them apart for twenty years.

Out of Touch stars two troubled siblings who must tread through a minefield of emotions, hidden complexes, and painful memories when their long-absent father reveals he is terminally ill and pleads with them both to get in touch.

The re-awakening of their early years – and the new imperative to find the strength to look back and the capacity to forgive – lies at the heart of this deeply personal and resonant tale which shines a piercing light on the often turbulent dynamics of contemporary family life.

When their newspaper editor father, Lee Bridges, was forced to leave their home in London and quit the country after a scandal twenty years ago, the lives of teenagers Michael and Ava changed forever.

The two young people coped with their parents’ broken relationship in different ways. Michael forged a fresh start and career for himself as a university lecturer in New York, while Ava was left behind to look after her demanding mother Elena who moved them to a new home in rural Derbyshire.

Elena died five months ago but Ava is still stuck in a rut, living in her mother’s dreary bungalow and working in a local department store. But everything changes the day Ava receives a letter from her long-lost father informing her that he is dying and wants to make contact with her again.

That same night, a man accidentally hits Ava with his car just a few miles from her home and she suffers a broken pelvis and leg. Distressed at what has happened, Sam Ghadimi, whose parents are Iranian, brings her flowers in hospital, the letter she dropped that night on the road, and maybe ‘the prospect of a happy future awaiting her.’

Meanwhile, in New York, Ava’s brother Michael receives the same letter. Michael has made a new life for himself with his high-flying Lebanese wife Layla and their two-year-old son Jacob. But true happiness has eluded Michael who is dogged by self-doubt and haunted by feelings of anxiety and guilt over his wife’s curtailed career ambitions, their vulnerable son, and the sister he left behind.

When he is thrown into the path of Sarah Addams, a sculptor from London who is living in a nearby apartment, she gives Michael food for thought and a new perspective, making him imagine, somewhat enviously, her life ‘filled with travel and hobbies, movement and stillness, everything possible.’

But neither Michael nor Ava can avoid the letter from their father… can they forgive him and face each other after all these years apart?

Agar’s gift for writing about weighty issues with the lightest of touches, and a wry wit that takes the sting out of the siblings’ angst-ridden remembrances, provide added ballast to a story – steeped in emotional wisdom and heartbreaking realities – about the damage inflicted by fractured relationships.

This rich authenticity is very much down to a beautifully portrayed cast of culturally diverse characters… from the complex and conflicted, half-Greek-Cypriots Ava and Michael with their soft belly of insecurity, to the amiable, caring Sam with his Iranian heritage, ambitious Layla whose career has been put on hold, and the gregarious, bohemian Sarah from cosmopolitan Camden Town.

The search for happiness and belonging in an increasingly impersonal world, the struggle to find a sense of self-worth, and the desire for reunion and closure all play intrinsic roles in Out of Touch. It’s a tale of our times which dazzles us with its veracity and poignancy, and ultimately delivers a warm and uplifting message of hope that however messy family life can be, the pay-offs are both joyful and rewarding.

(W&N, hardback, £14.99)