A LIE ABOUT MY FATHER by JOHN BURNSIDE

Perhaps I am taking this whole “lie” thing in the title too seriously, but I was a little torn as to whether or not to tell the truth in this review.

Should I fib or not ?

No, you’re right.  No fibbing.  Tell the truth, embarrassing as it is, which is as follows :

This is the first time I have ever read a complete e-book from (cyber) cover to (cyber) cover – which means that there was no helpful blurb.

Which means that until I finished it and (inevitably) Googled the book, did I discover that it wasn’t a work of fiction after all, but a memoir.

Ah.

So?

Would my opinion of “A lie about my father” have changed substantially had I known I was reading fact rather than fiction ?

Yes, I suppose it would have, but all I can say is that I read it as fiction (though I did suppose there was a huge bedrock of memories underpinning the story ).  Had I known it was a memoir, possibly I would have found it less same old, same old-ey.  As it was, there were moments when I groaned at the thought of yet another childhood memory or another drug induced explanation, so possibly I would have been a little more understanding.

But anyway, that’s how I read the book, and you can’t re-do first impressions.

So, despite moments of great lyricism, I found “A lie about my father” to be just far too “nombriliste”- if the writer can thrown in the odd Rimbaud quotation without translation, then surely I can respond in kind ?

The childhood parts of the book resonated much more – possibly because of a shared northern, Catholic DNA, but ironically it was that same northern, Catholic DNA that made me impatient with the endless maundering.

I empathised far more with the 2 women who were for me far more courageous than their menfolk.  While the latter drank and drugged their way into parallel, self-destructive spirals of oblivion, these 2 stoic women tried to soldier on.  We never really get to know much about Margaret (husband?  childrens’ names? that kind of thing) but she is the one who remains loyal and solidly caring.  John’s mother is more fleshed out and eminently more likeable than her husband.  She is the person I felt the sorriest for throughout the whole saga.  She I could visualise, unlike the father.

The very heart of the book, the tortured, destructive relationship between the 2 men left me cold.  Horribly, uncaringly cold.  His mother moved me.

There are moments of beautiful lyricism and lovely writing, words that spear a moment perfectly:

“tumbling off when we reached the bottom and making delicious red scrapes on our hands and knees, those red scrapes with hard little pieces of coal and slag buried just under the skin.”

As I read that, I glanced at my own knee, which still has a tiny bit of grit embedded, after a spectacular childhood tumble down a hill.  I can still remember the painful tweezering out of grit and muck from my shredded knee, all these decades later.

I loved this early passage :

“If there is an afterlife, for me it will be limbo, the one truly great Catholic invention: a no man’s land of mystery and haunting music, with nobody good or holy around to be compared to – they will all be in heaven – just the interesting outsiders, the unbaptised and the pagan, and the faultless sceptics God cannot quite find it in himself to send to hell.”

The writer spends much of his adolescence and early adult life in a limbo of his own self destructive making but (now that I know it is a memoir) he clearly pulls himself out of the morass, and the final images of him holding the hand of his excited 3 year old son, pottering around the harbour looking at crabs, augurs well.

I am glad the writer now has a son, and appears to have found inner peace.  He has been brave to share so much sadness.

I loved the final moment of the wake for his father, when his friends produce a photo of him – possibly – playing football.  So, did he play for Lothian or not?

Ah…back to the lies that are at the very heart of this book…

A brave book, that is not always a comfortable read.

Published by Vintage books in 2007, you can buy the book now by clicking on the link below :

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