There is a time, before we can read, when our lives are an open book. Before we are unleashed on our neighborhood we learn about privacy; we learn that some things—usually facts about money—are to be kept within the family. Then, long before we are emotionally mature, we learn about secrets—the kind a family keeps from other people, and the kind it keeps from itself. We do not have to know what these secrets are to feel the strain of not talking about them. They are often tied up with love or the lack of it, or are concerned with personal identity: they are about “sisters” who are mothers, “nephews” who are sons, they are about adoption and false paternity, and those people like absconding fathers who are written out of a family’s narrative but who lurk below eye level, like a footnote which one day someone will want to consult.
John Lanchester, a critic and the author of three well-received novels, reminds us that “Nietzsche said that ignorance is as structured as knowledge.” In family matters this seems strikingly true. The study of the organization, management, and protection of family secrets is a discrete discipline, with memoirs as its textbooks. But we fail to learn from each other. We are amazed when anomalies within our own family come to light. When Lanchester’s mother died in 1998, the first sentence of her will ran “I ask that my body be buried.” He missed this and had her cremated. What makes an eminent author and critic unable to read a simple sentence? He was in shock because “five days after she died, I had found out that both the name and the date of birth I had known my mother by were false.” The reader is intrigued; fathers who lie about their past are almost routine, but mothers usually find it harder to cover their tracks. Asked by the priest who buried the ashes what he would like written on her gravestone, the author said he would go away and think about it. This book is the result of his pondering.
Lanchester is an only child, born in Hamburg in 1962, and educated at an English boarding school and at Oxford. His father Bill was employed for thirty years by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and the family were professional expatriates. At home, Bill never mentioned money, as if the subject were not only in bad taste but actively painful to him. His son describes him as a
gentle, soft-spoken, intelligent man, shortish and roundish and well-dressed and friendly…good-natured and straightforward in manner and externally so conformist…one of the dreamiest, most inward people I have known, one whom reality affected only when it intruded on his inner world by force.
He is, then, an odd type of father to find in a memoir, a great change from the usual parade of sadists and wasters. Bill was warmhearted and humorous, but there was one …