Monday, September 30, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

A HISTORY OF SILENCE – A Memoir” by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $NZ38)

            I am in a real quandary about Lloyd Jones’ latest work. When I reviewed his Mr Pip on its first appearance [NZ Listener 7 October 2006], I was happy to salute it (regardless of what the current film version may be like) as an intelligent and engaging story, which made good use of a shifting narrative perspective and had the best sort of humane values. I was pleased when it later won the fiction section of our national book awards. But when I reviewed his later Hand-Me-Down World [Sunday Star-Times 31 October 2010], I found the narrative trickiness of multiple narrators an alienating effect in all the wrong ways. Reader engagement was sacrificed to literary artifice, and a sound central narrative idea (an African woman’s encounter with Europe) became a pretentious and messy novel.

            At his best, Jones’ is a vividly evocative writer; but evocation for its own sake can drown purpose. This may be true of his latest book.

            There are special sorts of problems with A History of Silence. As its subtitle warns, it is not a novel, but a memoir. Specifically, it is Jones’ very personal attempt to unwrap the truths about the childhood of both his parents. Mother and father were apparently taciturn people, tight-lipped about their past, emotionally distant and withholding painful memories from their children. Their son intuits that there was something traumatic in the background of each, and (now that both parents are long dead) he sets out to find out what it was in each case.

What he uncovers is certainly an unhappy story. His father Lew and his siblings were apparently abandoned to orphanages by their feckless Welsh father, when their mother had died suddenly of hydatids. The children were fed family legends about their sailor father having “drowned at sea” when in fact he had gone off and set up another family.

More traumatic was his mother Joyce’s childhood. In an age when extra-marital births were regarded as scandalous, Joyce’s unmarried teenage mother Maud became pregnant (with Joyce) to a married man whom she could not marry. Maud pretended to be a respectable widow with child, and in that guise married a respectable man. But when he found out the truth of her position, her husband began to mistreat little Joyce ferociously. This meant the author’s mother grew up in an environment of extreme domestic violence, until she was adopted into the household of another couple – where again she was regularly beaten by an angry and disappointed woman, who wanted her to be a substitute for her own dead biological children. The result was that Lloyd Jones’ mother grew up knowing that she had been cast off by her own mother, who refused to receive or speak to her even in old age.

I distort the memoir in presenting it in these simple terms, although these are the unhappy explanatory tales that Lloyd Jones uncovers.

Apart from filling in gaps in family knowledge, what Jones is doing here is reflecting on the nature of memory itself – the way (in families especially) things are repressed or hidden or turned into legends or preserved only in rumours or broken references that happen to crop up randomly in conversations over the years.

A History of Silence is not written in any sort of flattened, chronological order. In part it follows the path of Lloyd Jones’ research – leading him to Wales and Wellington and Christchurch and a Canterbury farm among other places. It also follows his own thoughts somewhat serendipitously, and this includes long reflections on his Hutt Valley childhood and the first impact his parents had on him. Lloyd Jones was, apparently, the youngest of the family, a full seventeen years younger than his entrepreneur brother Bob Jones, who features in just a few revealing childhood anecdotes. Speaking as a youngest child myself, I readily identify with the author’s memories of feeling somehow left out of what the grown-ups and older siblings were talking about, and of having to work out connections by later research.

Apparently the Jones family lived in somewhat straitened circumstances, economies had to be made and they were borne with a certain stoicism. Yet young Lloyd was grounded in his home, his pet dogs and his street games. He found going on family holidays a bit of a chore. Take this revealing account of childhood holidays, which captures perfectly that childhood sense that nowhere but home is really as it should be:

From one municipal camp to the next we work our way across the North Island. There is always a ngaio pushing against the sides of the tent and making scary shadows with its branches, and I seem to be forever standing in lines. I long for the moment we will pack up the car and head for home. I miss the street, the backyard, the slap of concrete and the brick side of the house where for hours I am content to throw a tennis ball and catch it within inches of the leaping dog and its snapping jaws. I miss the letterbox and the smell of the clipped hedge. I long for those certainties – even the sky which has its own particularity, shaped by the long gorsy hills that swallow and blow out tremendous gusts of wind. The settled air of elsewhere simply feels wrong, and when the moment comes to pull up pegs I am never so keen to help.” (p.61)

Another aspect of home life was his father’s stoicism, which Lloyd Jones is sometimes tempted to see as a legacy of his Welsh forebears:

            “My father’s default expression was one of vacancy. Hot tar could have been poured inside his skull and he would not have complained. His hands were covered with thick skin from handling steel. I saw him pick up gorse in his bare hands. I suppose if you empty yourself out there is nothing left to scald or hurt. I don’t have his forbearance, but I do have the expression that goes with it.” (p.115)

  In this congeries, memory, anecdote and research are held together by one major stylistic device, and it is this which puts me in the quandary I mentioned at the top of this notice. Repeatedly, Jones uses the big Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 as a metaphor for memory either repressed or recovered.

When, in Wellington, he first hears news of the Christchurch disaster, he notes:

This was a real disaster. Equally, it was plain to see that it had come out of an unacknowledged past. The old maps clearly spelt out the swamp and wetland history of the city’s foundations. But it had been overlooked or perhaps was thought to have been triumphed over by advances in swamp-draining techniques, then covered up with concrete and bitumen.” (p.23)

So, with that “unacknowledged past “ bit, Christchurch is at once comparable with his family’s domestic disaster inasmuch as the past has not been acknowledged in either case.

Later, when Jones observes some reconstruction work going on in Barbadoes Street at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, he notes the way teams are preserving the shattered bits of the building stone by numbered stone for later reconstruction. This he presents as the genesis of his own attempts to reconstruct his family’s story. He writes:

In its retelling, the basilica would hold true. Presumably in time it would be as good as new, and it would be impossible to know what it had been through. It would give the sunny impression of being outside history”….“I kept thinking about those numbered stones, until some purpose began to take shape. I began to wonder if I might retrace and recover something of my own past, and reassemble it in the manner of the basilica. It was a matter of looking to see if any of the original building blocks remained, and where I might find them.” (pp.33-34)

And so the comparisons between macro- and micro-disasters recur regularly throughout this book. Take this late passage where, having retrieved most of his family’s unspoken past, Jones considers Christchurch’s experience of liquefaction, with the clear implication that it is like his family’s past bubbling up and still having an effect on the living:

 “Yet, if we care to find out, liquefaction has its own story to tell, not so much myth but a creation story nonetheless. Upheaval, displacement, the formation of the plains and swamps and peatlands, the retreat of the sea several millennia ago, the arrival of the podocarp forest and its steady erasure by pastoralists, and then a new weave in the landscape starting with the introduction of farming, followed by the all-conquering cockspur grass and grazing beats – well, the latter were more cosmetic and scenic, unlike the brew of ancient times, of basalt and shells, and various crustaceans, and peat and swamp turning into coal, and water locked in place by impermeable layers of peat beneath a rock pan, and a network of waterways, some slow, some meandering, others as still as ponds reflecting nothing but the subterranean dark. The liquefaction that sent putrid matter bursting up across the streets of Christchurch was a postcard from these hidden zones.
Nothing had been lost, just hidden.” (pp.159-160)
And this is my problem with A History of Silence.

Granted that the circumstances of Jones’ parents were extremely unhappy – even traumatic - ones, are they really comparable with a large-scale public disaster like the Christchurch earthquake, with its large loss of life? I am not belittling the emotional pain of Lew and Joyce Jones, but I do wonder if their son isn’t inflating the importance of their condition by extending his metaphor as he does. As a poetic image, it might have worked well a few times. Overused as it is, it leaves us feeling battered by its insistence.

This isn’t the only technique of allusion Lloyd Jones uses. There is much literary allusion. His grandmother Maud’s status as an unwed mother, and the public shame it invited, is compared a number of times with the situation of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hipper references, with regard to the erasure of both memory and false memory, are the ones made to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. But at least one literary reference (first made on p.83) makes me wonder about the reliability of the narrator. Jones tells us that while sorting through a post-earthquake rubbish pile, he happened to find a copy of Pliny’s letters, which just fell open at the page where Pliny describes the death of his uncle during the eruption of Vesuvius. The intimate family detail and the public disaster are wed in the Roman author just as they are in the modern memoirist. I guess it’s possible that Jones turned up this volume as described, but it does sound rather neat for his literary purpose.

As in all Jones’ work, this one has powerful passages, keen evocation and a humane undercurrent (Jones is careful to acknowledge the people who showed kindness and consideration to his parents in their childhood). But the extended earthquake metaphor is quite a hurdle.


  1. People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biographies and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. A novel can do that.
    - Anthony Powell has a character say this in his novel Hearing Secret
    Harmonies, chapter 3

    1. Yes, very tricky reasoning here by Anthony Powell's character. But even so, we are all aware that memoirs are as much miagination, selection and reordering of things as they are factual recall.