Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
The Family Code by Wayne Ng immerses readers in a poignant narrative that follows the struggles of Hannah Belenko, a thirty-something single mother determined to keep her son Axel safe after losing her daughter Faye to the Children's Aid Society. Set against a backdrop of intergenerational trauma and a deeply ingrained "family code," the novel explores the complexities of love, resilience, and the transformative power of breaking free from destructive cycles.
Wayne Ng, himself a social worker, expertly crafts a cast of damaged yet compelling characters, each carrying the weight of their own past and inflicting damage on those around them. Through shifting perspectives, we witness the raw emotions and intimate journeys of Hannah and her son Axel, each yearning for a stable future.
At the root of the dysfunction in Hannah's family is the imposing figure of Youri, her iron-fisted father, a Russian immigrant who fled Communism. Youri enforces the family code of silence and distrust of outsiders. This code has sinister implications when Hannah's brother Ivan sexually assaults one of Hannah's friends at a high school party, forcing Hannah to lie to the police. Later, Youri will use the code again to force his daughter to cover up his own transgressions. This time, she contributes to the suicide of her closest friend. Damaged by these experiences, Hannah becomes entangled in a cycle of drugs, alcohol, and destructive relationships. Her path is marked by survival instincts, petty theft, and a constant battle against a system that seems stacked against her.
After losing her case for custody of Faye, Hannah leaves Ottawa for Halifax, fearing that her son Axel will also be taken by the Children's Aid Society. She's heard that Axel's deadbeat father, Bashir (Bash), has returned to Halifax from Lebanon. She hopes to find both a meal ticket in getting Bash to cough up child support, and a refuge from the CAS. A refugee from the Lebanese civil war, Bash carries his own traumas, adding another layer of complexity to the narrative. As the story unfolds, we learn that Bash's earlier abandonment of his young family had as much to do with Hannah's toxicity as his own irresponsibility. The synergistic damage of trauma and toxicity is a major theme of the novel.
Together, Hannah and Axel navigate their tumultuous lives, questioning the code they inherited and the possibilities of breaking free, while Bash rediscovers the love he once had for Hannah and realizes his love for his son. Spoiler alert: yes, the story has a "sort of" happy ending.
Ng's storytelling is a master class in authenticity. From poverty and violence to addiction and strained relationships, the novel unflinchingly explores the depths of human struggle. And the author's profound psychological insights and heartfelt portrayal of the characters' troubled lives create an intense and unforgettable reading experience.
The Family Code is published by Guernica Editions.