British novelist Lanchester (Fragrant Harbor, 2002, etc.) uncovers his mother’s secret life—nothing sordid, just surprising—and in the process comes to understand his own character.
“All families have secrets,” the author declares near the beginning of his uneven memoir. But it was not until after his parents’ deaths that he became more than vaguely aware of what his mother was hiding. He spent the next few years researching his parents’ lives and trying to understand in particular the demons that pursued his mother, Julia Gunnigan. Born in County Mayo to a large, impecunious Irish family, at age 16 (in 1937), she elected to enter a convent, as did several of her sisters. But Julia left convent life twice, the second time after she’d taken final vows. She tried nursing, teaching and writing under a pseudonym, then in London met Bill Lanchester, an attractive, intelligent international banker. (Born in South Africa, he had worked in Hong Kong, Singapore and other spots in Southeast Asia.) When they met in 1959, Bill was 33; Julia, nearing 40, took her sister’s name in order to delete nine years from her age. They married, and Julia spent the rest of her life lying about her past. The first two-thirds of the narrative presents the fruits of Lanchester’s research into his parents’ lives. Assuming that readers will find the minutiae of his mother’s life as compelling as he does, he reproduces pages of her dull letters from the convent, supplemented with his eye-glazing commentary. Once the author arrives on the scene, however, the pace quickens and interest intensifies. Lanchester writes affectingly of his relationships with his parents, of their painful deaths from heart conditions, of his struggles with debilitating panic attacks and his difficulties with writing.
A lovely story that gets bogged down in detail.