Mother Country, by Jeremy Harding<br/>A Forever Family, by John Houghton

Two faces of adoption
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"It's one of the axioms of adoption that when you go looking for people you don't know, you begin to discover the people you imagined you knew," writes Jeremy Harding. Harding was about five when his mother Maureen first explained that he was adopted. Over the years, the matter was broached delicately; and a sketchy little history was outlined, of a "little Irish girl", poor but kind, who worked at Woolworths, met a steward from a Scandinavian ship, and gave away a baby.

In his mid-forties, Harding tentatively began to seek out a few more fragments of his birth story. Mother Country is the tender and lyrical account of his search, and an evocative meditation on the world he had grown up in. Ineluctably, his attempts to unearth information about his "natural" family lead into "spectral realms" of reflection about his adoptive family. The quest for "Mother One" leads him to a surprising new understanding of "Mother Two".

Harding paints a loving portrait of his eccentric adoptive mother, gin in hand, dancing around the house singing tunes from My Fair Lady, surrounded by Pekineses. Maureen is blessed with the hauteur of a dowager duchess. Despite her tales of a girlhood spent skiing in Chamonix, Harding discovers what his fantasist mother had in common with Eliza Doolittle.

The watery landscape of Harding's childhood is brilliantly evoked: the ragged riverside properties along a straggling Thames tributary sealed off by embankments, impenetrable towpaths and sodden gardens; the air of damp faded grandeur. There's Harding's slightly caddish father Colin with his cocktails, his contract bridge, his bigotry. There's grandmother Mim with ducks in her bed, and a hot-water bottle wedged under her coat.

Weaving through is the detective story of Harding's frustrated hours mired in electoral rolls and phone books; the painstaking crawl towards his origins. The known and unknown switch places. People who existed only in the imagination, or as names, are transformed into flesh and blood. Warm and wise, Mother Country recognises the slipperiness of memory and the untrustworthiness of truth, as it tests the marshy ground which adoptees tread.

Writing about adoption carries an immeasurable burden of responsibility. Your private story is always someone else's private story. Parental stories are rarely heard, but A Forever Family is told from the perspective of an adoptive father. If Harding's is a journey of discovery, John Houghton's is a venture into loss. The agony of being unable to have a baby is conveyed in three poignant pages. Probed and vetted by social services, Houghton and his wife are approved as adopters, and with only a few weeks to prepare, their new family arrives - three siblings, a boy aged five, his half-brother aged three and his half-sister, aged 15 months. In the howl of raw pain which follows, the Houghtons come to understand the kind of abuse a child is likely to have suffered before it is put up for adoption today. No amount of love seems to heal the damage, and the spiral of abuse spins into a "terrifying, uncontrollable reality". The family is left as unsupported it is unprepared.

For legal reasons, John Houghton writes under a pseudonym. All the names are changed. Places must remain unidentifiable. When all the signifying facts of identity are withdrawn, they inflict the same kind of damage on a book as on a child. Banal events sometimes take prominence, because they are the only solid realities available.

This is a brave account, with all the untidiness of real life. Some images are very real indeed. Imagine one small boy collapsing in hysteria at the sight of a delivery van; another boy standing out in the cold, obsessively washing coal; and the isolation, desperation and rage of an adoptive father who realises that "There are all sorts of hells hidden behind suburban doors, and we were living in one of them."

Judith Palmer edited 'Private Views' (Serpent's Tail)