The Legacy of Lost Things, the debut novel from writer Aida Zilelian, is a subtle testament to the ways we erase the identity of those closest to us, and the ways we allow our identities to be erased. By exploring one family’s history of internalized suffering, Zilelian reminds us all of the importance for individualization in tradition.
The many-layered and faceted nature of legacy unfolds in a series of chapters that leap between characters and generations, reaching back into the past before snapping forward to the present. Having created a rigid picture of a family in crisis, Zilelian peels back the layers to reveal decades of repressed dreams and loves, each sacrificed in the name of family and tradition. The ties that bind these close-knit characters together read like cutting zip ties than tethering captives to a destiny they had no hand in choosing.
When teenager Araxi runs away from home, she leaves behind her mother, father, and younger sister.
Over the course of three months, the absence of their eldest daughter weighs on Levon and Tamar, Armenian immigrants who moved to New York City as children and quickly became folded into the Armenian community in their new city. Faced with an act of intense rebellion, they reflect on their own youthful desires, all of which they eventually put aside in favor of what they saw as their unchangeable fate. Meanwhile, Sophie finds herself torn between the rigidity of life in her family’s home and the total rejection of it that Araxi’s leaving signifies. Half a country away, Araxi asks herself much the same questions from the other side of the divide.
The silence of the book is palpable, as each generation passes down to the next an unbroken history of longing suffered quietly. Tamar’s love for a boy she has known since childhood weighs heavily on her, but is not enough to draw her away from the life she sees as non-negotiable. Levon fears his eldest daughter is not his, and allows his pain to fuel anger towards his depressed wife. Tamar was once rebellious, willing to push gently against the envelope. Levon once feared his cruel, temperamental father. Both of them now find themselves filling the roles that once made them feel so trapped, boxing their daughters into the same tight cages that left them stemmied and unfulfilled.
But Araxi’s leaving forces their eyes and hearts open in a way they had previously not allowed. By breaking through the cycle that has caused such personal loss for so many, Araxi has given her family the opportunity to rebuild on a foundation of honesty, even if that honesty is forged in pain.
The Legacy of Lost Things is an at times chilling meditation on the heritage we don’t choose to pass down, and on the power of generational expectations. Despite physical closeness and insularity, Araxi’s family is distant and strangers to one another, a haunting reminder of the gaps in understanding that can take on their own life in the absence of true connection. Zilelian’s debut novel is a breathtaking look at the canyons between families, and the way loss can be passed from generation to generation.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. Her interests include travel, international politics, film, and tattoos. More of her work can be seen here.