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by Alan Bennett

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-19192-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A relentlessly self-aware memoir by Bennett (The Uncommon Reader, 2007, etc.), that most inward-searching of dramatists and autobiographers.

The English have a fine confessional tradition, but when writing about family, the potential for embarrassment seems to silence, or at least gentle, many a brave voice. (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” Philip Larkin famously wrote, and while England was shocked, no one rushed to correct him.) Not so Bennett, who writes affectingly and fearlessly of his mother’s long, slow descent into dementia. Mam had had barmy days before, he writes, but that changed to depression. Eventually the depression began taking more severe turns, which had the effect of uniting the siblings in concern over her condition—“but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays.” But Mam’s spells inspire a quest, as the author examines his family’s past to understand his parents, and himself. Thus it is that he discovers Grandad, “bald as an egg,” who had suffered through an explosion in a gasworks that blew off all his hair. Bennett also remembers an eccentric aunt, determined and steely, “recounting the events of her day in Proustian detail,” a great lesson for a budding storyteller in how not to attempt to bewitch an audience. Then there’s his parents’ own discovery, well into adulthood, of alcohol, and not just the booze but the snacks to accompany it, “cocktail snacks, bits of cheese and pineapple, sausages-on-sticks, food that nowadays would come under the generic term of nibbles.” Unfortunately for Bennett, Dad passed on, Mam remembered nothing, and it was up to the author to be the conscience and memory of his little tribe—a duty he discharges forthrightly and elegantly.

Fans of Bennett know what to expect—bracingly good prose, a well-seeded laugh here and there and much food for thought.