Family Romance by John Lanchester

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Family Romance by John Lanchester

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the author's parents, a banker and a former nun who pulled off the remarkable feat of stealing her sister's identity in order to marry.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571234431

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Having published three novels, John Lanchester turns to non-fiction for his fourth book. Though subtitled A memoir, it is largely a biography of his parents. The main emphasis is on his mother Julia, born in Ireland in 1920. In her teenage years she became a nun, decided the life was not for her, and left the convent, a move which resulted in estrangement from her family. While working at a sanatorium during the Second World War she contracted TB, fell in love and became engaged to another patient who sadly died soon afterwards.

Heartbroken, she returned to a nun's life, but the yearning for a normal domestic life became too strong.

At length she met Bill Lanchester, who was born in Africa in 1926 and worked with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. She wanted to marry him, but there was one problem. They both yearned for a family, but by then she was almost 40 and feared he might reject her because she was too old. So she applied to the Irish Record Office for a copy of her younger sister's birth certificate, used it to apply for British citizenship – thus deliberately losing nine years in the process.

At the time of their marriage she was pregnant with John, born in Hamburg in 1962. Their efforts to try for a larger family sadly resulted in four miscarriages for her. As the writer puts it, he was basically the happy ending to the story. The family were posted successively to Hong Kong, Calcutta and Labuan, before John went to boarding school in England at the age of 10.

As he explains in his foreword, to suggest that a family is either happy or unhappy is a gross over-simplification. Families are often extremely happy and unhappy at the same time, and his was no exception. His parents were very close and loving, but somewhat distant and not inclined to confide in him. After his mother died in 1998 he consulted one of his aunts, compared his mother's British passport with the Irish birth certificate, and realized that his mother had in effect stolen her sister's identity. (All this, of course, was before identity theft became such a burning issue in everyday life). His father had been let into the secret some five years before his death.

This really is quite an unusual story – although maybe, if there is no such thing as a family that is neither happy nor unhappy, it follows that there is no such thing as a normal family either. Julia was certainly the more remarkable parent of the two, and it is only right that her life dominates the pages of this book. In particular, John's description of her life in the convent is perhaps the most fascinating part of all. Bill was obviously a good man and a good father, though in all fairness the life of a banker is bound to look a tad lacklustre against that of a woman who became a nun, left after a crisis of faith, then returned to the vocation and ended up stealing her sister's identity!

Some of the psychological and personal musings towards the end of the book, I thought, were somewhat long-drawn-out and might have been edited a little. Nevertheless, the whole story is told with admirable restraint and lack of sentiment.

Our thanks to Faber & Faber for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this you might also like A Secret Madness by Elaine Bass, or Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes.

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