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THE WHOLE STAGGERING MYSTERY by Sylvia Brownrigg Kirkus Star


A Story of Fathers Lost and Found

by Sylvia Brownrigg

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2024
ISBN: 9781640096561
Publisher: Counterpoint

A lyrical memoir/reimagining of a family scattered among colonial Kenya, wartime England, and the California redwoods over the past century.

One day in 2012, novelist Brownrigg received a box in the mail containing letters, sepia portraits, information about the birth of her father, Nick, and a typed account about the short life of her English grandfather, Gawen, who was also a novelist. This treasure trove helped Brownrigg to not only uncover the mystery of these two men—Gawen died in his late 20s, and Nick left the family when Brownrigg was a baby (“his early absence left a constant hollowness in me”)—but also learn her family history and her place in it. Told in four parts, the engrossing text moves back and forth in time, from the English countryside in the early 1930s to the redwoods of Northern California in the 1970s, back to Kenya in the fading days of the British Empire, forward to London during World War II, and finally to the present in California. Though this is a memoir, Brownrigg executes an impressive reconstruction of history. In one chapter, we experience the viewpoint of Gawen’s supervisor in Kenya; in another, we follow Nick’s dead brother; yet another imagines the life of Beatrice, Brownrigg’s great-grandmother, living alone in London during wartime, after the deaths of her son, Gawen, and her husband. Boldly, the author also writes about herself and her family as if they were characters in a novel. “Getting at Nick…required me to blur him into Frank, and myself to Sophie….The move simultaneously provided distance and proximity: I could see my child self at arm’s length but the parent from closer to, like a perspective-altering telescope.”

Brownrigg’s skillful interweaving of slippery narrative threads adds up to an immersive reading experience.