Books: "Your father was a wonderful liar"

Louise Kehoe has written a book to exorcise the demons of her childhood. Sue Gaisford reports; In This Dark House by Louise Kehoe Viking, pounds 17
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The Independent Culture
Here is a true story built on lies. It is very nearly incredible, but we have to believe it. As fiction it would be risibly implausible: no novelist would dare to invent a villain as despotic, ruthless and gratuitously vicious as the man at its centre, Louise Kehoe's father, the Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin.

There is scarcely a page that does not detail the many ways in which this man did his best to ensure that his children had a thoroughly miserable and frightened childhood. He kept a detailed Book of Grievances in which their every tiny misdemeanour was noted; he encouraged them to spy on each other; he allowed them no privacy, no freedom, no friends.

Sometimes he resorted to towering rage, sometimes to physical violence; more often, he would devise subtle, insidious methods of undermining his children's self-confidence. Here is a tiny example: Louise, his third and youngest child, was happy that a painting of hers was to be displayed at her school speech day. Her father decided to steal one of the pictures - but not Louise's, which he dismissed as pedestrian and unimaginative. He came home with another girl's, which he framed and hung in the living- room as a daily reminder of his daughter's inadequacy.

The Lubetkins had left London in 1939 to farm in Somerset. They knew nothing about agriculture, but before long the famous architect had devised early versions of veal-crates for his stock and, says his daughter, managed to invent factory farming. Ardent communists, resolute misanthropists and militant atheists, they had children only because abortions were hard to procure in wartime. He would have preferred to have his wife exclusively to himself, and he made her wear scarlet lipstick and high-heeled shoes to please him. There is a particularly ghastly description of her agonizing death from cancer. Berthold snatched away her morphine, insisted on the lipstick, force-fed her anguished, emaciated frame and took photographs of her as she was dying.

After her death, Lubetkin took to gambling and fast women, enjoying a late resurgence of fame as the rediscovered father of British modernism, and revelling in a glitzy lifestyle into extreme old age. His daughter Louise battled to make a career for herself, but she developed severe anorexia - an episode described with devastating accuracy and uncompromising frankness - and seems only to have survived thanks to furious determination and the unswerving love of her husband. It is to be hoped that this book might, at last, complete her rehabilitation.

She writes with urgent fluency and eloquence; though she shirks no detail of her own suffering, she somehow avoids self-pity. The purpose of her memoir is not to bewail her lot but to describe and, perhaps, to explain her father. Towards the end, the search for the secret source of his grotesque character assumes the nature and pace of a detective story. Though he had always claimed that Lubetkin was an assumed name, and that his entire family had perished in the Russian Revolution, she made a chance discovery, after his death, that he had a cousin still living in New York. "Your father", said this cousin, fascinated by her account, "was a wonderful liar". At last, she learned his true identity and discovered the terrible things that had happened in his youth. At last, she began to understand something of his motivation.

To understand is, they say, to forgive: perhaps she has managed to forgive him for all the pain he inflicted. But, for the reader, the unravelling of the past is not quite enough. The monster is not exonerated. There is, at the end, some sense of resolution, but the lasting impression created by this damaged daughter is of calculated, sustained, inhuman cruelty.

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