A British writer recalls his difficult relationship with a cold, sarcastic father—also a writer—who later vanishes into Alzheimer’s.
Novelist Gébler (How to Murder a Man, 1999, etc.) begins and ends with the insight he gained when his father died: “You can’t change the past but, with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it.” And here there’s much past, much poison, and, near the end, a few pages of understanding. Gébler starts in 1990 when he must find a custodial facility for his father, who has had a stroke and whose dementia is steadily deepening. He returns to his father’s house, gathers up his personal papers, boxes them, and stores them at home. It will be seven years before he examines them. Gébler then leaps backward to tell about his musician grandfather and his father’s career as a writer (he sold his novel The Plymouth Adventure to Hollywood; in 1952, the film opened with Spencer Tracy and Gene Tierney). Gébler remembers a lot from his early childhood (including pages of supposedly verbatim conversations), but none of it is very cheery. Three times we must read descriptions of his boyhood vomitus, and we hear a dreary litany of cruelties uttered by his father (who appears never to have struck his children): “ ‘Damned child,’ ” he muttered, ‘damn bloody child’ ” is typical. His parents eventually divorce, and Gébler and his brother, Sasha, elect to live with their mother, the writer Edna O’Brien. Gébler struggles through school, eventually fashioning for himself a career in writing and documentary filmmaking. He is disappointed when his father’s dementia does not permit the old man to appreciate how well his son has turned out. But he realizes that his father’s chronic depression caused him to behave as he did. And so Gébler can forgive him.
Often touching—sometimes harrowing—but overlong and overwrought. (13 b&w photographs)