Jennifer Croft is among the most accomplished translators working other languages into English today. She translates Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian — and is perhaps best known for translating the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk's Flights, a genre-straining work for which Croft and Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
Croft's first non-translated work, Homesick, is similarly boundary-pushing, or boundary-expanding. On Homesick's website, Croft notes:
"The book was written in Spanish first, as a novel called Serpientes y escaleras, and then as a memoir in English, called Homesick. Neither the Spanish nor the English is a translation."
Rather, Homesick is a hybrid, mixing photography and impressionistic autobiographical writing to tell the story of Croft's artistic coming of age.
In Homesick, Croft's name is Amy, not Jennifer. She's a brainy elementary-schooler at the book's start, devoted in equal measure to advanced math, her new camera, and her baby sister, Zoe. Amy is a classically Type A older sister, assuming full responsibility for Zoe in her own mind. At first, she tries to mold Zoe in her own image, but when Zoe develops a brain tumor, Amy — tormented by guilt that she's healthy while Zoe is sick — throws herself wholly into comforting and shielding her sister. She takes pictures of Zoe's dog to use as distractions when Zoe gets her blood drawn, though "Amy can't get the timing exactly right. She is always too early or too late. Zoe still sobs and begs the nurses not to hurt her." When Zoe undergoes surgery, Amy, as if preparing for anesthesia herself, refuses to eat.
Croft writes much of Homesick in this flat, precocious-child tone, using short, present-tense sentences to great effect. For balance, however, she weaves in her own photographs, each captioned with a brief, distinctly adult musing on the main narrative. Often, these musings revolve around language. During Zoe's surgery, for instance, the adult Amy notes, "To worry used to mean to strangle." During her recovery, Croft writes:
"I know that astrocytes are star-shaped cells. I know the word comes from the same source as disaster. What I could never understand, since we were sisters, was how some little tiny stars could misalign in your brain, and not in mine, and just like that instead of being part of me all of a sudden you began to drift away from me."
The sensation of drifting is crucial to Homesick. The book carries a sense of nausea at the sisters' separation, though they are, by any sibling standards, uncommonly close. Amy suffers intense guilt over her sister's illness. After Zoe enters remission, Amy extends that guilt to her own swifter progress through the world — which, because she's three years older, is unstoppable. Amy dislikes hitting puberty and experiencing sexuality before Zoe does. She's uncomfortable outstripping her little sister intellectually; verbal though she is, she begins wishing "we could be octopuses, so we would not need words." Even in adulthood, living on a different continent from Zoe, she thinks longingly of summer-camp Red Rover games, when "we used to be the perfect team and nobody could even dream of tearing us apart."
Perhaps to assuage her guilt, Amy clings tighter to Zoe in adolescence than in childhood. The two are homeschooled, and she never seeks other friends. She takes countless pictures of Zoe, wanting to "capture and fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change." By Amy's mid-teens, her desire to "capture and fix" Zoe has begun bleeding dangerously into her desire for Zoe to be "part of me." She persuades herself that she and Zoe draw from one pool of luck, and that she, Amy, "is so lucky she brings others all the bad luck in the world." She applies what she calls "the math of sacrifice," concluding that to protect Zoe, she must harm herself.
Croft moves gently, though not lightly, through this time in Amy's life. She balances depression and self-harm with growing artistic self-discovery. Amy starts college at 15, discovering translation and re-engaging with photography, and the memoir's two narrative voices draw closer to each other. As Croft's prose becomes more descriptive and complex, the photographs she includes move toward childhood, featuring images of her sister post-surgery. The book's balance tips from sisterhood to art, establishing translation and photography as new beacons in Amy's life.
This transition gives Homesick its happy ending. Croft's photos, mixed in with her text, create continuity between memoirist and protagonist, despite their differing names. Her musings on language and occasional inclusion of Cyrillic script serve the same purpose. They make Homesick into a translator's Bildungsroman, one in which art is first a beacon, then a home. Art launches Amy into "the hard, rewarding work of becoming herself," which means separating herself from Zoe. That separation is arduous and loving in equal measure. It sets Amy — and perhaps Zoe — free.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati.