At the heart of Emma Hooper’s sensitive new novel, Our Homesick Songs (Simon & Schuster, Aug.), is the unforgettable Connor family. The family lives in Little Running, a once-thriving fishing village off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, devastated by the loss of the industry that had sustained and defined it for generations. Of that village, Hooper says, “The community was like one family—a fishing community where everyone worked toward this one project, which was the fish.”
In Homesick Songs, Aidan and Martha Connor literally meet at sea, he the quiet fisherman in his boat and she the ethereal woman sitting on a rock, weaving the nets used to hold the day’s catch. In these ways the couple earn their living, fall in love, and marry, after Martha’s parents die at sea during a storm. But because of overfishing and environmental changes, gradually the fish leave Little Running, and one by one, the families depart to find work far west of there, in Northern Alberta, where there are jobs in the oil and gas plants.
The Connor children, 10-year-old Finn and 14-year-old Cora, are deeply affected by the death of the only way of life they’ve ever known. Both are creative, industrious souls who suffer through their parents’ decision to take jobs in Alberta, each parent going for a month at a time, in order to keep the family sheltered and fed in Little Running. Not only does this challenge the strength of the Connor’s marriage but it makes the children realize that the family might be forced to move away.
“There are different levels of diasporas going on in the book,” Hooper says. “Mrs. Callaghan, Little Running’s wise elder, was brought over from Ireland by her parents when there was a bounty of fish in the waters around the village, the harbor filled with lights from the boats. Then there’s this next generation, where everyone’s going from that community life of trade to Alberta to work in the camps. That’s where I’m from, and I remember that happening. For me as a child it was all about new people coming in, but for them, it was about leaving, not arriving somewhere.”
Hooper says that one of the themes of Homesick Songs is the personal ways in which we identify ourselves through time, “particularly our ‘long selves,’ or ‘long time,’ or ancestral time—things like stories, traditions, and food, and how these are fluid, changing things, like the identities we draw from them.”
When Aidan and Martha start the jobs that take them away from their children—and each other—for a month at a time, Finn and Cora calm themselves by singing Canadian folk songs handed down to them by their parents. Finn finds solace in his talks with Mrs. Callaghan, who gives him accordion lessons in her hilltop house. She spends her days at the front window, watching through a telescope as people leave the island, keeping an ever-growing list of names until only she and the Connors are left.
Teenage Cora, almost numb with boredom in the empty town where she only has access to one parent at a time, takes decades-old Happy Backpacker travel guides from Little Running’s library. She has never been outside her village. With so many vacated houses to choose from, she decorates each one based on a single country from the old guides. China, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, and South Africa appear through the clever eye of Cora, who uses the things she finds inside each residence to create her unique interpretations of foreign lands.
When lonely Finn isn’t out in a little boat desperately waiting for a tug on his fishing line, he is enchanted by the new worlds Cora invites him into. Her ultimate aim is to earn enough money to free her brother from their claustrophobic home, and she finally runs away in search of a job.
“She’s a teenager in this dead-end situation, and she’s smart and has no stimulation,” Hooper says. “I didn’t want her to leave right away. I wanted her to have a project to express her naive curiosity about the world and make an attempt at worldliness by decorating the houses. When she uses them all up, she has to get out.”
Cora’s disappearance, complete save for occasional letters mailed to Finn, written in foreign languages, is the catalyst for Aidan and Martha, both having started affairs with other people, to reevaluate their marriage and stop living apart. When Cora is found, just as the government is ready to stop supplying electricity and water to Little Running, the family has no choice but to leave.
Hooper is the author of the international bestselling novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James (S&S, 2015). She is also a musician, songwriter, and singer who infuses Homesick Songs with the lore of folk music, and her prose is lyrical in style and poetic in reach.
“I really do think a lot and spend a lot of time on the musicality of my text,” Hooper says from her home in Bath, England, where she teaches in the music department at Bath Spa University. “I have to find the right soundtrack of whatever I’m writing at that minute. I’ll spend ages going through Spotify saying, ‘That isn’t right, that’s too slow, that’s too fast.’ When I find the right thing, it makes it easier to write in a way I think is musically appropriate to whatever’s happening. I’m a musician, so to me it does make a difference to a reading experience if you have the right tempo and the right rhythm to draw us through.”
Hooper started taking viola lessons when she was three and today also plays violin, ukulele, and accordion, which she will take with her this summer on her book tour. And she plans to perform on the accordion at each book event this summer. “It’s the folk instrument the book revolves around,” she says.
The musicality of Homesick Songs is the glue that holds the Connor family together. Leaving Mrs. Callaghan’s house one evening after she explains how the Spanish shipwrecks in Newfoundland eventually served to attract enough fish to create the industry there, Finn stops at Cora’s Italy house. He “unwrapped his accordion—bag, quilt, case—stretched the bellows out as wide as they’d go, and hummed along to the steady hum of warm air like Mrs. Callaghan had told him to. ‘You can still sing, when you don’t have an instrument,’ she had said. Even when you don’t have anything, you can always sing.”
Music and writing have always been symbiotic to Hooper. “They’re both means of expression that I really like, but they’re very different,” she says. Her undergrad and doctorate degrees are in both music and writing, and she has two albums out now that come on USB sticks. “I’ll definitely feel like doing one or the other, and my songwriting definitely affects how I write fiction.”
Hooper hopes that readers will find in Homesick “a coming to terms with the fact that people and places and stories you love in your life are flawed, and you learn to love them through that, and beyond it.” She adds, “We are none of us 100% anything, 100% good, or 100% knowable. The true, or real, self is a little bit false, like the fables and family history recounted in the book.”