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MY FATHER'S FORTUNE by Michael Frayn


A Life

by Michael Frayn

Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9377-3
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

A British novelist and playwright’s memoir about growing up with a near-deaf, roofing-salesman father.

Although it takes a few chapters for the narrative to gain its footing, this finely detailed remembrance displays subtle wit and powers of perception that magnify every nook and cranny of ordinary life into something extraordinary. Frayn (Travels with a Typewriter: A Reporter at Large, 2009, etc.) begins with his hearing-impaired father’s marriage in the late 1930s. By the time children materialize, the Frayn family has moved from gritty North London to the leafier outland of Ewell, 12 miles outside the city. Frayn’s father pursued the same middle-class suburban dreams of many families at the time, when a respectable suburban home could be purchased for less than £1,000. As the book gains steam, it’s tough to judge whether the author has photographic mental recall, or if his attentiveness to detail can be attributed to a particularly imaginative sense of historical embellishment. Whatever the case, Frayn evokes the sights, sounds and smells of his boyhood as if it had all taken place yesterday. The author’s prose particularly shines when he conjures the dread of V-2 bombings over London during the Blitz. Frayn’s dry, Orwellian sense of humor doesn’t creep into the narrative until he describes the specific ways in which he failed to live up to his father’s hopes for an athletically inclined child—the young author was physically awkward and “slow witted” and didn’t embrace conventional sport until much later in life. As the memoir progresses into Frayn’s adolescent years, the emphasis subtly shifts to his own exploits as a junior intellectual and culture snob. His father’s “fortune,” as one might expect, turns out to be much more important than the kind of inheritance found in a retirement account.

A consistently understated, mostly engrossing read.