I came across this memoir during the blackout at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.  I couldn’t see John Lanchester but I heard enough of his melodious voice to know that I wanted more of his family memoir.  So when I found the unabridged audio read by the author himself on the library shelves, it was time to really indulge myself!

As the author is preparing for his mother’s funeral, his wife begins a conversation with “Your mother was older than you thought she was” and something inside the author recognises this is true.  There was always something distant about his mother.  One of his most poignant memories is of her saying to her son “I miss you, you know” at a time when they are spending more time together than they ever had.  After the funeral the son does not know what to inscribe on her headstone and so he begins his quest to find out the truth about his mother.  Who was she?  Julia, Sister Eucharia, Siobhan or Julie?

His mother’s story is a dramatic one,  beginning in Ireland, a decade spent in convents, some in India, most of her married life spent in the Far East, a life  ending in London.   Eventful and emotionally loaded,  Julie Lanchester, at times disowned by her family, eventually stealing the identity of her younger sister to secure her own happiness.

Her husband’s story, Bill, is no less fascinating. Hong Kong, Australia, Hamburg, Norwich. 

How did John Lanchester’s parents  find each other?

While the love story in Family Romance is that of Bill and Julie, John Lanchester’s fondness for his family – the memoir tells the stories of his grandparents as well – is a romance in itself.   Even if it’s one that blossomed after his parents’ deaths. A typical member of a younger generation,  Lanchester was not always appreciative of his parents when they were around, feeling the need of his widowed mother a burden,  even as she pushed him away to prove her independence.  In reconstructing their lives and attempting to unravel the psychology, his as well as theirs,  Lanchester reveals much about the emotional dynamic of family life.  Even if the events within his family history are exceptional, the emotions aren’t.  There’s something of every family in these pages …

along with a fascinating history of the twentieth century from the 1920’s onwards.  The separating of families during the war years, internment in Hong Kong, the nomadic chldhood of an international banker’s son.    With a novelist’s eye, Lanchester evokes the distinct feel of each time and place in the journey.

History, psychology, lack of celebrity (!) plus personal detective work combine to create a thoroughly absorbing work.  Looking at Lanchester’s fictional output, which I have yet to sample, it appears that he has fictionalised some of his family history in the James Tait Black nominee Fragrant Harbour.    After this, my first 5-star “read” of 2010, I may just have to book myself a seat on the next boat out.

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