Travels With My Father by Karen Jennings
|Travels With My Father by Karen Jennings|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Gentle, reflective, and intimate, it cannot help but be tinged with sadness. It fills none of the criteria of a novel, but is more than a memoir, so forget categorisation and read it on its own terms. A wide-range of often forgotten history gets slipped in between the lines.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 172||Date: November 2016|
|Publisher: Holland Park Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Despite the coda, this does not feel like an autobiographical novel. I am not sure why Jennings felt the need to couch it in those terms unless there is much in the structure that is fiction. I'm hoping there isn't. I am hoping that the fiction is purely that conceit that this pretends to be a novel. If that was necessary to get it published, then I'll applaud the subterfuge, because this is writing that needs to be read. It is – if as true as I want it to be – a delicate reminiscence: a daughter's in memoriam to a father she loved, worshipped, idealised, cared-for, lived with, and yes (in true daughterly fashion) at times, hated. A father who was, therefore, a good dad.
We daddy's girls know this much to be true: they are not perfect. They will instil ethics and curiosity in us, they will give us rules to live by and traces to kick over, they will want us to be who we choose to be, whilst all the while, one way or another, influencing who that turns out to be. We also know that we won't know them until it's too late.
Jennings was only in her late twenties when she lost her father. Within six months she found herself newly in love, moving in with her lover, away from her grieving mother, the selling of the family home, dealing with grief and optimism, and maybe that was the spur for writing it all down. Trying to find the father she had lost, in a way that allowed her to, at the same, time move on from him – or perhaps back to him.
It is not a book about grief however. It is not really a book about a daughter's relationship with her father, although that might be seen to be the string on which the pearls are strung. It is series of vignettes from her own life, and from her father's, but it allows itself to digress into tales of ancient family history – links which may or may not be true, and even if true are definitely exaggerated as is so in all families, into thoughts on Rasputin and Lenin, asides on the influence of books – A Passage to India and 1066 and all that are mentioned in the same breath. I love that. That's the kind of house I grew up in. My own father gave me J K Rowling and Mary Wollstonecraft, Odysseus and Dilbert…
Growing up tall and fair in a South Africa going through its own growing pains of the end of apartheid lends an 'otherness' to Jennings' tales that those of us of more ordinary backgrounds will find exotic. Part of her charm however is that she refutes any such notion. This is just how it was. It was a family. Fractured, confused, loving, and not. She takes us back through the family, how they came to be in South Africa in the first place, what they did and what happened around them. Ambitions were achieved and thwarted along the way.
In part it is also a traveller's tale. Jennings is a writer and she has sought a writer's opportunities to experience other cultures, other histories. As well as Russian revolutions, she speaks of the Market Garden offensive at Arnhem, a dancing school in rural India, of missing the glories of Italy through illness.
Her stories of Tasmania are as melancholic as her mood at the time must have been, but in their simple telling bright to light things we should not forget and which most of us will not yet have known. Histories get lost in the sands of time, personal histories especially, is what she seems to be trying to say…and if we remember the personal stories, stories of the real people, then maybe the lessons are easier to learn.
I haven't been to Tasmania…but I have been to Salisbury and Old Sarum and Stonehenge. Some of her reactions I could relate to on a very personal level; others had me speaking out loud, that no, that's not the point. I wanted to have been there, then, to tell her that where she really needed to go was Avebury.
It's a short book and to tell more would be to spoil the reading of it.
Gentle, reflective, and intimate, it cannot help but be tinged the a sadness that seems part of the author's psyche rather than directly the result of her father's passing. It fills none of the criteria of a novel, but is more than a memoir, so forget categorisation and read it on its own terms.
And purely because it is one of the most poetic things I've read in a while, I have to share this quote, from towards the end when considering her own future with a lover from whom she has been apart, more than she's been with, an uncertain future at that, she asks herself Can we ask each other to commit to candlelight and cold water?
For another gentle view of growing up in Africa try Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott Less gentle, more political approaches can be found in Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin – both are recommended.
You can read more book reviews or buy Travels With My Father by Karen Jennings at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Travels With My Father by Karen Jennings at Amazon.com.
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