While You Were Gone

While You Were Gone won an IPPY Silver Medal in 2019. 

As young adults growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the three Nash sisters are still haunted by their mother’s early death. Shannon, the middle sister, wants to be an investigative journalist. Paige, the youngest, wants to channel Bessie Smith, her mother’s favorite singer. Claire, the oldest, desires stability through family and career. When their father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the sisters cope with the loss in different ways. Recovering from divorce and the collapsing journalism industry, Shannon manages a bottom-feeder rag and considers having a child for her cousin and his lover, an Army veteran. After Paige is kicked out of her band, she becomes obsessed with a reclusive songwriter she wants to make famous against his will. Claire’s family and career are threatened by her attraction to a new hire she supervises, an African American who ignites her passion for literature and the deeper questions it asks of her. But, when their family’s uncovered secrets threaten all they’ve known, the sisters will have to choose between lives they’ve dreamed of and those they love.

Inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters with echoes of King Lear, WYWG traces the journeys of three sisters growing up in and returning to a hometown that, like them, seems to reflect a new South. But beneath the surface changes are secrets that run as deep as the Tennessee River. WYWG explores how three sisters living in the American South in the twenty-first century deal when their own dreams collide with their own misconceptions about family, race, gender, and the larger world.

Listen to Sybil talk about WYWG at WUTC Public Radio.

Praise for While You Were Gone:

With echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Baker’s novel deftly mines the personal histories of Claire, the eldest, followed by Shannon and then Paige, as they grow from gangly adolescents in 1995 to morally conflicted women in 2011, spinning away from and back to the city that both buoys them and sucks them down into its vortex of social and racial tensions.” 

Hamilton Caine for Chapter 16

While You Were Gone is an open-hearted and complex story of an amazing family, told with such confidence that I could not put it down. Sybil Baker has the enviable ability to populate her work with characters who feel so nuanced and real that you can’t believe that you haven’t always known these people, that they haven’t always been a part of your life. And when I finished this beautiful story, I found myself unable to forget them.”

-Kevin Wilson, author of THE FAMILY FANG and NOTHING TO SEE HERE

The book’s writing style is as deceptively understated as its plot. It is in the subtle depiction of change and evolution that Baker excels. A sentence or a paragraph can cover weeks or months, depicting small, seemingly insignificant actions which add up little by little into something greater that can only be fully grasped once the book is finished.”

The Lit Pub

With faint gothic overtones of a Faulknerian saga, the past operates as something never resolved but an invitation to a perpetual haunting instead, one that is embraced, confronted, or, in the case of one of these sisters, entirely re-invented into a tenable future for the family that will know no center. “

The Literary Review

Baker lifts the tension notch by notch until domestic tragedies are as affecting as tsunamis, instead of ratcheting the stakes up artificially with death and politics. And she measures character development in fathoms instead of meters.”

The Heavy Feather Review

Sybil Baker’s novel While You Were Gone has an enticing title – one that might instantly spur a correlation to the themes of 1989’s The Trip to Bountiful (an elder person’s need to revisit her hometown) or Tom Wolfe’s book You Can’t Go Home Again (predicated upon unfulfilled nostalgia) or, perhaps, to some other dubious occurrence.

Fjords Review

Articles and Interviews

Interview and Review in Gold Dust Magazine p. 38-39.

Conversations: Sybil Baker and Laura Catherine Brown in The Critical Flame

Novelists Sybil Baker and Katie Rogin in Conversation: On Trauma, America’s Endless Wars and Coming Home in Anomaly

Meet Sybil Baker, The Contemporary Southern Woman in Little Pink Book

While You Were Gone in Chattanooga Pulse