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Family Reactions

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Anthony Dolphin, Carol's Nephew (Director of Studies at the Devon School of English, born 1968)


With its bifurcated voice and the ridged suture of its text, this book is an uncomfortable read - every shift an abrasion to the familiar flow of memoir –yet I read it in two, long, lamplit sittings. I cannot disentangle myself from its contents and can claim no critical distance in my reaction here. The stories are familiar and those that linger longest are all drawn to horror in its general and particular forms. War. Disease. Poverty. Drowned kittens. Cold mothers. Terrified fathers. The consequences are alarmingly clear. This book is a discomforting read.


As a 15 year old talking to my grandfather about the war, I remember a shared, boyish (arrested) excitement surfacing in us both as his humble recollections washed into a grand course of history. The excitement comingled with fear, sadness and anger but not as much as you’d imagine. This was how men talk, I thought, without fuss or sentiment. My grandfather told me things he never told his wife or daughters but he could not tell me about the plague in his head forty years on, caught from a pit of Belsen stink.   


The transmission of trauma and loss is the central enquiry of the book. It is how (our) families talk. A discourse of allusion, significant facades, cleared throats, polite screens drawn around the corpse. Nothing is worked out. The greatest events are elided into the mundane. Sublimated (somewhere) until they are lost. It seems very obvious that war causes trauma and loss but to have its diffuse effects and inescapable forward motion charted with such precision still chills a peacetime psyche like mine borne on notions of full agency. The clarity was hard to endure but I admire my aunt’s ability to pick at scabs (here, I channel my mother’s dim view of psychology) and depict the wounds. It is an act of recovery that justifies the book’s form and its labour. Most of us, myself included, are happier to live in a mild realm of self deception with a view that is yielding, where parents are blameless for being imperfect in an impossible job and where the divine is to be alive and well in a world at peace with those loved ones now dead.  

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