Walking around the broken New Zealand city of Christchurch after a massive earthquake in February of 2011, award-winning novelist Lloyd Jones was struck not just by the area’s devastation (“photographs don’t really do justice to the scale of the destruction”) but by how the city’s foundations stood suddenly revealed. “It was a very visceral experience,” he says, “raw and earthy. This was a city which was very secure about its heritage....But it was heritage built over the top of flimsy foundations—peat, swamp water.” Though modern draining techniques “were thought to have drained it of that past,” Jones says, water has a memory, and the earthquakes “awakened that in the form of liquefaction.” As he wandered this landscape, Jones says he was struck with a sudden desire to explore the fault lines in his own family’s foundations with what would become his memoir, A History of Silence.
Writing this book meant overcoming several challenges for the author of the beloved novel Mister Pip), including an almost-complete lack of information—the family trait was silence and his parents never talked about their pasts. (Jones believed his father had been orphaned as a small child, and that his mother had been given up to another family when she was four; he wryly observes that he knows the lineage of his pet dogs better than his own). Digging into his family history yields unsettling discoveries; his father’s father (reportedly drowned at sea) actually disappeared, reinvented himself and began a new family. Later, Jones reads old court documents illuminating the circumstances surrounding his grandmother’s decision to give his mother away. The world Jones encounters as he circles back, viewing old memories with a more informed eye is a complex, multilayered one: Family stories hold complicated truths.
Unearthing and piecing together his family history was not the only challenge Jones faced. Used to approaching the world as a fiction writer (Jones is one of new Zealand’s most highly acclaimed authors), he says writing nonfiction was initially difficult for him. “I found it quite hard—I was used to inhabiting other voices. The more distant the characters are, the easier that seems to be, but the useful distance and imagination is closed down with the familiar.”
Finding a voice that was “mine and trustworthy and that would do the job,” took time; Jones says he had to “close down the gap between me and the reader—it is an intimate time. I am talking to you. Each reader is in the same physical space as me…that’s why I start where I do…sharing the interior space of my apartment.”
His desire to invite the reader in, to create that sense of “interiority” explains, in part, the book’s complex construction; the writing moves back and forth in time and between subjects, creating “a bit of a dance between earthquake and family history,” and readers witness the author making sense of one in light of the other. Jones is “mapping an interior world, and as such the usual rules of narrative go out the window. The interior world is more fluid in time and space than the material one in which we go about our daily business. It's a more interesting and vital place to wash around in.”
The author says that his skills as “an imaginative writer” were quite useful—so many moments from the past were out of reach to him. “I had no way of knowing whether my father’s father used his hospital stay to escape the clutches of family, to reinvent himself as a new person. Similarly, I had to imagine what it was like for Maud…the day she gave up my mother, got her up and ready…it was the last morning. The mother knows that, the daughter doesn’t. These are the moments when you can flex an imaginative muscle and create a picture of what that moment might have been like.”
The book has provoked interesting reactions from readers: Sharing his family’s story has freed others to share their own. “I’ve never had so many readers come up and say something complimentary about the book, before telling me their own extraordinary story about their own family. In some ways this story is remarkable but it’s also everyone’s story. All family histories are remarkable. This book struck that chord of recognition.”
In the end, “we tell the story that we need to tell....It provides a snapshot of the past,” Jones says. “But family stories, I've discovered, are just as often constructed in order to conceal or obscure as provide a coherent packaging of the past. Maybe the story keeps changing as new information comes to the surface and as we grow comfortable with the different truths that emerge. The new bits are stitched in and the narrative continues to grow.”
His evocative memoir suggests the complicated nature of truth, especially applied to the stories families choose to tell—or to suppress. “Story,” he says, “is the operative word.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.