March 7, 2017
Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Trauma does not define a person, but it can cause seemingly endless aftershocks. Flora and Julian, a sister and brother who spent a considerable amount of time in the foster care system, are still feeling these aftershocks almost a year after being adopted. Their adoptive mother–who Flora, nervous to accept and then lose, simply calls “Person” in her head–does all she can to make home feel like home, but the pair still find themselves preparing for abandonment. They also have questions that their new parents just don’t know how to handle. The adults must put aside their own anxieties to help Flora and Julian search their past for answers.
While the plot of Forever, or a Long Long Time is relatively straightforward, the prose and imagery are often surreal. Flora and Julian have several theories about where they come from–many are magical and very beautiful–but the siblings are stubborn and refuse to believe any origin story without proof. I found myself sucked into their powerful belief that any origin was possible and was ready for the story to turn into fantasy, revealing that the siblings truly did crawl out of the horizon. However, the fantastical pieces of the book all inevitably draw from the reality that Flora and Julian have lived, but forgotten. When Person finally takes the children on a trip to try and remember their past, small pieces of their theories pop up in unexpected places, making the journey truly fascinating.
The trip, which takes up about a third of the novel, also allows Flora and Julian to explain behaviors that Person has long been struggling to understand. I briefly worked in foster care and sometimes found myself trying to explain kids’ behaviors to confused or unprepared caregivers. Trauma is complicated, and even those who have had similar experiences–like Flora and Julian–find that it manifests in different ways. Julian, for example, hoards food, while Flora struggles with language and sometimes, especially after a difficult or intensely emotional experience, cannot speak for long periods of time. Parents and caregivers can dangerously wrap themselves up in concepts of normalcy that are damaging to children, but this book does not hesitate to challenge and call caregivers out.
Caela Carter also addresses race in an interesting manner that felt realistic for Flora and Julian’s experiences and personalities. The siblings are mixed race, likely black and Latinx, but they know nothing about their birth parents. While they have an awareness of race–Flora actually lists several people’s races while noting that her adopted sister, Elena, is a mixed race Latina, and the book itself subtly notes that Person’s whiteness affects her relationship with Elena, who is her step-daughter–they feel so utterly alien that the question of belonging to a racial group doesn’t arise. When they begin to look back and recall foster mothers of various races and sexualities, Carter paints a complicated and vivid picture of each character even when they only appear on the page briefly. Even short relationships have left lasting impacts on Flora and Julian, shaping their understanding of identity.
Forever, or a Long Long Time is a well-crafted, complex novel about family and trust that will draw in readers searching for ways to talk about the damaging consequences of the foster care system. The pacing is fairly slow, but readers are rewarded with a thoughtful meditation on families, trust, and strange, beautiful “birth” stories that are more like creation myths. The fantastic way in which Flora relates the siblings’ theories about their inhuman birth may also draw in fantasy fans looking to cross over to more realistic fiction.