Faber & Faber, £16.99, 252pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

My Father's Fortune: A Life, By Michael Frayn

In June 1944, Adolf Hitler almost did for Michael Frayn. A V1 flying bomb ("our doodlebug") skimmed over the top of the 10-year-old's surburban home in Ewell, Surrey, before the "giant bluebottle" killed a family in the next street. After air-raid warnings, the Frayns had slept downstairs – thankfully, since the bomb's passage had left "a tangled mass of window-lead set with broken glass... curled up as peacefully as Goldilocks on my pillow".

So, a fairy-tale escape: a bit of the "pure luck" which, along with "hard work and quick wits", forms part of the inheritance of Tom Frayn, the beaming, mercurial, light-spirited dad whose presence his son conjures on every page of this entrancing memoir. The Germans' near-miss made possible a radiant career in journalism, drama and fiction which in its rare blend of wit and depth has enhanced our literature for (can this be true?) around 50 years. Yet quicksilver Frayn, an Ariel of letters, has always defied gravity. Although he casts himself as slow and vague in contrast to his father's pace and edge, surely the humour, dexterity and resourcefulness of the son's work echoes a smartly sceptical parent (with his "indifference to all systems of belief") who owned next to nothing, bought as little as he could and "moved lightly over the earth".

Born in Holloway in 1901, Devon-descended Tom Frayn inhabited – with guts and gusto – that liminal class space between "skilled working" and "lower middle" that has given us so many great London books. He came from a clan cursed with hereditary deafness, a creeping ailment that quite failed to cramp his style. His son has escaped, again. Always "smart as a whip", Tom grew up fast with relatives whose up-and-down lurches between modest prosperity and near-penury match anything in Pritchett or Wells. Meanwhile, the Seven Sisters and Holloway Roads "flow through the history of the Frayn family like the Tigris and Euphrates" through Mesopotamia's.

Luckily born too late for the First World War, Tom met violin-playing Vi from an aspirational family in 1919. With a readily-shouldered responsibility that awes his son, he put their romance on hold while he made his own way and cared for others as their fortunes crashed. Michael (born 1933) first grew up above an off-licence in Mill Hill. Then Tom's security as a building-supplies salesman allowed a shift to suburbia – albeit to a rented house, with the firm's car outside.

Tom (later Tommy) sold asbestos roofing. In the innocent 1930s and 1940s, "asbestos has no vices". Frayn – whose riffs on the prewar virtues of smoking also delight – knows how to skirt hindsight while nodding to his clued-up readers now. Tough on himself, tender on others, his loving but unsentimental evocation of the Ewell years will stand in its own right as a classic account of suburban childhood – as well as offering, for readers of his flawless novel Spies, a textbook revelation of how memory feeds fiction.

Then, in 1949, comes the disaster that both shatters his father's fortune, - even if he remade it, with a little help from Elsie the high-maintenance Ye Old Oak ham heiress – and propels the son into a nervily sophisticated adolescence. Slowly, through Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge, early career and his own family, he awakens to his father's improvised, irreverent virtues, grasped "only when one has stepped into the shoes one saw before on someone else's feet".

In the theatre and his novels, Frayn gnaws creatively away at the edges of genre. Likewise, which form should this memoir of a parent take: biography, autobiography, social history – or, as he rightly deduces, some nimbly-stitched patchwork of the lot? The past few years have seen some outstanding reinventions of a parent's life, from Miranda Seymour (In My Father's House) and Hanif Kureishi (My Ear at his Heart) to Hanan al-Shaykh (The Locust and the Bird) and Rupert Thomson (This Party's Got to Stop). Spookily, the pivotal tragedy here corresponds exactly to Thomson's own.

All must negotiate, as Frayn does, those hazy borderlands between self and others, subjectivity and objectivity, in the knowledge that family anecdotes consist of what he calls "formalisations": as artful, artificial in their way as the cutaway drawings of bombers or submarines sketched by an illustrator neighbour in Ewell.

A knack for angle and perspective means that he notes, for instance, how sister Jill's more troubled and fretful childhood recollections challenge his nostalgia. Abashed, he tries to understand "how much harder things were for her". Forever alert to the inner processes of art and mind – in fiction from Sweet Dreams to Headlong, on stage from Noises Off to Copenhagen – Frayn from time to time cuts away and nips backstage to show how the memoir machinery works. Yet, almost miraculously, this keen self-awareness never compromises the deep poignancy – and the rich comedy - of the story he has to tell. Here, as always, that's part of the trick of it for Frayn.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before