The ties that bind, Jane Westaway

The Lie That Settles
Peter Farrell
Ocean Books, $35.00,
ISBN 978192721708

The Lost Pilot
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Penguin, $40.00,
ISBN 9781742539201

A History of Silence
Lloyd Jones
Penguin, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143569473

“The cradle rocks above an abyss,” writes Nabokov in his memoir Speak, Memory, and human existence is

but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

 

Each of these memoirists has peered into his own pre-natal abyss – although perhaps not calmly – and emerged with a story to tell. And each story constitutes a kind of whodunit. But whereas the usual sort tracks its protagonist’s progress towards the truth behind a death, these three are bent on uncovering the mystery of their births: how it came about, who the people were who made and shaped him, what lay hidden behind family secrets and silences?

What stands out here is the structure each has chosen for logging his descent into the past.

Peter Farrell’s The Lie That Settles opens in Kent, England, in 1947. A small boy reads in a comic about soldiers long-believed dead who are found alive years after the war. He says to his mum, “Perhaps my dad is out there somewhere.” She ruffles his hair, and reminds him of what he’s always known – that his father was a teacher who died in an air raid, trying to get his class into a shelter. Two pages in, the scene flicks to 1994, and a letter. Farrell is introducing himself to someone called Morris, his still-living father.

From here, the story proper begins – with Marion, his mother, born in 1899, and her forebears. Then it works steadily forward through Farrell’s early life in England, his first marriage and emigration to New Zealand, his climb up the state services ladder – from a remote prison farm to a Te Papa directorship – and his mid-life efforts to reconnect with his birth father and extended family.

Marion’s story is engrossing – because of both its universality and its uniqueness. She grows up in the East End, the seventh of 13 children. At 17, she joins the Women’s Land Army, and, after the Great War, turns to nursing, becoming a live-in probationer at a mental hospital. Her induction into each institution included “morals” lectures. She would have been well aware of the dangers surrounding young women.

Eventually, Marion goes to work as matron at the alternative school of Major Theodore Faithfull, a man his granddaughter Marianne will later describe as “the most horrible dirty old man you could imagine”. And Farrell sketches in the intriguing alternative education scene, whose players included such celebrities as A S Neill and Bertrand Russell. A few weeks after Marion, new teacher Morris Horovitch arrives. He is 25, attractive and humorous.

A year later, Marion takes a similar live-in position at another alternative school, Red Hill, and soon becomes a much-loved figure there. And again, Morris Horovitch is taken on as a teacher at the same school.

Evidence of their affair – beside, that is, their “illegitimate” offspring – remains in poems written by Marion, and quoted here – amateurish but touching. When she finds she is pregnant, the principal offers to keep her on, giving her a bigger room for herself and the baby. Horovitch goes away, and Marion and her mother cook up the story of Farrell’s father, which will in time be fed to him. Red Hill will be young Peter’s home for many years.

This is a deeply humane account. At the same time as it’s a loving, respectful portrait of his mother (to whom it is dedicated), it refuses to condemn his father. What drives Farrell is the longing to connect. He astutely avoids sentimentality and judgement.

Once upon a time, a well-told tale like this would have found a commercial publisher. That it didn’t says less about the quality of the writing than it does about the state of mainstream publishing. These days profit isn’t spread over an entire list, but demanded of each title. So any book that looks as if it won’t make money gets the thumbs down. The shareholders of Farrell’s publisher, Ocean Books, are the writers themselves. It’s an interesting model, and one writers and readers can’t afford to dismiss out of hand, the way we once did vanity publishers.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s The Lost Pilot is published by Penguin, who also published his Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau (2010), and it’s a classier-looking production than Farrell’s. He dedicates it to his father, but says at the outset in an “Explanatory Note” that, as well as a memoir, it is also “history, travel, a spiritual quest – and poetry.” Perhaps Holman sensed that these disparate parts don’t quite come together to form a satisfying whole, for he goes on to describe the book’s structure:

[It] opens with a scene where my father confronts his death, and the subject announces itself. The next chapter explores our relationship, the background to that scene, and the war between father and son. The following chapter returns to my father’s life from birth until the time the war ended, building up to the attack on his [aircraft] carrier in 1945 … .

From there, the focus switches to the kamikaze pilots who died attacking the Illustrious that day, the wider kamikaze culture, and its emergence in modern Japanese history.

 

And so on, for several more paragraphs. It comes across as something written for a grant or a publisher, instead of for the reader – and it’s not a successful appetiser.

The memoir opens with father’s and son’s last meeting a few weeks before Holman senior’s death at 50, in 1972. Father sobs for his wasted life; son offers comfort and consolation, something the latter has longed all his life to receive. Bill was an alcoholic and a gambler with a bad temper, imprisoned for embezzlement, and almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences at sea in WWII. When he comes out of prison, his adolescent son withdraws completely from the man he has always “worshipped and feared”.

What triggers the son’s search for the man behind the father is a grainy, battered photograph taken on April 6 1945. It shows the split second when a Japanese kamikaze pilot with Bill’s ship in his sights has been shot off course and is plunging into another – the Illustrious – just 30 metres away, sending up a tower of water. The pilot dies; Bill Holman does not.

Holman paints in what’s known about the appallingly young pilots who undertook these suicide missions – their training and culture, how they spent their last agonising night before taking off. He quotes from their diaries, which show how unwilling many were to die, how futile they knew their sacrifice to be, and how they thought of their families, rather than the glory of emperor and country, as Western myth has it.

This is riveting stuff. So too is Holman’s account of his childhood on the Coast, which calls to mind the dismal world Mervyn Thompson depicts in his autobiography, All My Lives (1980).

But the second half of Holman’s book is an anticlimax and a disappointment. It’s a day-by-day account of his trip to Japan to track down the pilot who died at the moment his own father lived. We’re told what the author does each day – whom he meets, what he eats, which trains he catches. These details are – at best – notes for the writer to reflect on and process later. They’re not rewarding fare for the reader, and detract from the poignant meeting with the pilot’s family.

At one point early in his narrative, Holman asks, “Am I being too frank in exposing the family laundry?” Lloyd Jones might well have asked the same thing, given his own high profile and that of his brother, Sir Bob. He doesn’t; neither does he provide any “extra-literary” rationale or explanation of what his memoir – A History of Silence – will do. He simply plunges in (or perhaps that should be out), and takes the reader with him. But it’s far from a straightforward dive.

I’ve long been allergic to prose described – often in hushed tones – as “poetic”. It tends to mean that what the writer says is obscured, even displaced, by how they are saying it. Yet I want to call Jones’s book poetic, and in a good way. Perhaps what I really mean is artistic, in the sense that the second half of Holman’s book is not. Certainly, the term structure feels inappropriate to Silence, since it seems to grow organically, to put out tendrils from the writer’s consciousness straight onto the page. Its artfulness is hidden, its scaffolding invisible, its craft impressive. Its sentences are not bogged down in image and metaphor, yet both are over-archingly present, and highly effective.

Jones dedicates his book to both his parents, Lew and Joyce. He never saw photographs of them as children, heard little to nothing about their families. His search for their background – and his own – is triggered by visiting Christchurch five weeks after the 2011 quake. There, he sees not just a ruined city, but one cut to the bone, revealing what has always been there but nobody has seen. He watches the basilica being dismantled, stone by numbered stone, and begins “to wonder if I might retrace and recover something of my own past, and reassemble it”.

What he discovers is awful. His grandmother Maud was ‘’a fallen woman’’ who came to Wellington in 1914 to give birth. All Jones knew of her was the hours he spent in the car with Joyce while she waited to glimpse the mother who had given her away, aged four. Excursions that, on her instruction, were not to be mentioned to his father. Jones senior was one of six children found with the corpse of their mother, dead from hydatids. He was sent to the orphanage and on to many foster homes.

Just as the Christchurch city fathers chose to forget they had built on unstable land that one jolt would turn to silt, so Lew and Joyce constructed a family life on the basis of a “wilful forgetting”. Jones’s memoir is the story of his own “unforgetting”, as he disinters memories, along with newspaper archives and legal cases; travels to Wales and the North Canterbury countryside (where Maud became pregnant to a widowed farmer – Jones’s unknown grandfather); and visits the old Wellington house she shared with her husband after giving Joyce away.

His book isn’t divided into discrete sections as Holman’s is, nor told chronologically like Farrell’s. Instead, scenes from Jones’s childhood bubble up into consciousness, circle and are absorbed back into his search for the truth that lay behind them. It’s this most of all that gives Silence its poetic, haunting quality.

By the end, Jones recognises in a picture of his grandfather, “a gesture of my own”. And perhaps, at a certain age as we face the second abyss, that glimpsed continuity is all we can ask for. Perhaps knowing what happened before we were born makes what will happen when we’re dead slightly less final, slightly less unbearable.

 

Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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