'What I do is me: for that I came.' G M Hopkins

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Father's House by Bethany Dawson

Have you ever looked into the pages of a book and glimpsed your own reflection? Of course she denies it’s me, but there I am, peering out from between the lines once in a while. In one chapter I’m licking my finger and lifting crumbs from the table; in another place I am stepping across the room to wipe the top of the record player, unable to resist the lure of dust.

In My Father’s House, as the Hanright siblings gather in the old farmhouse to clear their collected memories, they enter a room referred to as Narnia. In our house, one of the ones in which my daughter Bethany grew up, there is a small room above the return which can only be accessed through a door at the back of the wardrobe. At the time we built that part of the house the children were immersed in the chronicles, so Narnia was an obvious name. It is a treasure trove filled with boxes of books, toys, old clothes and things we might need some day. It’s in the book, and we love that it is because it grounds the novel in our shared family experience.
The similarity, however, ends there. That is the wonder of this debut novel. Bethany is able to get inside the head of a middling aged man, accurately portray the heartache of an alcoholic’s family and take the reader right to the bedside of the dying, without having been present herself at the deaths of her grandparents. How can this my child become someone else entirely inside her own head, and when I read, inside mine?

Since the publication of the novel earlier this year, I have been unable to put into words what I feel about this birthing – a kind of grandchild. Not mine in any sense and yet the result of something born in me – a child with a talent. I am amazed and delighted.

The members of the Hanright family come alive in all their raw ordinariness. Nothing spectacular happens and yet we recognise every character trait and flaw. When I listen to obituaries on the radio, or when someone’s death makes the news, it always strikes me that no one bad ever dies: ‘everyone loved them’, ‘they were the life and soul’, ‘so kind and popular’, ‘always a smile on their face’, ‘would do anything for anyone’. We believe that we ought not to speak ill of the dead, but the deathbed scene in this novel is refreshing in its harsh reality. Sometimes death doesn’t fix things.

The characters in this novel are so real in their vulnerability. Robbie the prodigal returns home, where he finds some resolution for his childhood hurts and disappointments. His troubled marriage is all the more convincing because it happens off stage. The sisters are beautifully drawn through the accuracy of observation: Wendy’s jumper ‘hung asymmetrically from her armpits’ and she ‘was striking the potato with the peeler as if it might produce a spark.’ After so many years of silence and reproach between them, the dance of the siblings round each other is nervous and exploratory. The reader is squeezed into the kitchen or the bedroom with them, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. We want to leave them to it and yet we are drawn into their fumbling attempts to connect and make sense of their past because there are damaged and broken relationships in all our journeys. We need to know whether love or judgment wins out in the end.

The language flows with musical excellence, lilting with familiar Ulsterisms: 'give the kitchen a going over'; 'I've never heard the like of this'; 'dusk snuck in and settled in the corners'.  I love the eyes that 'committed to being blue after years of watery indecision' and the cowslips 'openly flirting in yellow skirts'.

Most powerful of all is this novel’s sense of place. The farm and its environs are drawn in such detail that we can smell the mud and mould and taste the staleness of the air and the relationships which came to grief in the house. Up the road, the city waits, ‘Belfast looked more like itself when it was wet.’ Bethany has pulled together the threads of her own places to recreate believable spaces where weeds grow, a cow needs milking and people rediscover themselves and each other. We are there with the characters as they exist in real time, making real decisions and feeling real feelings. There is no jarring happy ending but the reader is left with some sense of redemption and a hope that the future might be better than the past. Larkscroft lingers in the memory long after the closing page.

Robbie mentions the phenomenon of the second novel falling short of the first. We await the next offering in the firm belief that no such thing will be true of this gifted author.

I am the proudest of mothers and commend and thank my lovely daughter for taking me on a journey into all our yesterdays.