Thursday, 3 July 2008

No man's land

There are some startling revelations in a recently published novel I have just read, a true story about a young woman’s tragic liaison with an older man that estranged her from her mother forty years ago.

I have to ask her, so who took the set of Bernard Leach coffee cups?

The dead always leave us much more than their possessions. The tangible inheritance I received from my father was ten shillings. I was seven. He sent me a postal order a day before he sent his second wife and his lover each a letter to say he was going to kill himself. Then he did it.

If only the inheritance I had got from him were happy memories of his good life.

A few years ago I had a conversation with the author while she was setting down the groundwork for the book before me now.

In her ever kind and gentle way she sounded out my feelings on her mining of our shared past. A past that is so entwined, that our meetings still cannot get to goodbye without one of us mentioning him.

Although my refusal would not have changed her mind, I gave my blessing for her to tell her story for I have always had an agenda myself that this story must be told. If only I had her craft and skill I would do it. I was disappointed that an earlier incarnation of the story did not satisfy my desire – as much as hers – to put the story behind us.

The novel has real names but holds back giving the surnames of some characters; her lover and thus his three wives and four children but all are mentioned much more than in passing.

This was not because of her or her publisher’s fears of libel but I think to spare them from the pain of public identification; which is why I now give them the same anonymity. I expect that this is pretty flimsy for anyone that has read a good book lately.

I think that other people's feelings will be hurt by her claims about her lover’s personality flaws if they become known by people who can never understand the whole truth.

But even though their identities are safe for a while from that assault by association, the narrative contains many other emotional bombs that reawaken repressed memories in those concerned. Or, like me, cause yet another distraction from day to day living to reconsider a past either wished to be forgotten or remembered with its just glory but not left in the no man’s land it is now.

It must be an unfortunate but common dilemma for authors to balance their right to say their respective truth against the rights of the subjects but if she hadn’t related his confession to a taboo desire (never fulfilled); then there wouldn’t be a story. Many of the critical reviews highlighted that aspect of her lover’s character out of all proportion to its importance to the narrative. Sex, violence and death are fairly reliable at keeping the reader interested.

A defence of the author and critic’s rights could be that this character is no reflection on his descendants but any social scientist will tell you differently. In his world, parentage, class, school tie and accent all mattered. In my version, I will tell you how judgements by people made from his association with others first gave him advantages and then brought on tragic consequences.

Because of that, several people I love will be wrestling with whether they should read this book and many people around them who know this story too will be on tenterhooks whether or not to mention it to me. Honesty will prevent this episode becoming another weeping sore, yet another difficult subject in our collective tragedy. Until I find the catharsis that the author had, I won’t cash that postal order.

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