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Review: The Scientists, By Marco Roth

Union Books, £14.99

The early chapters of Marco Roth's memoir offer an elegant picture of his 1980s childhood in a Manhattan home that was like "the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but scaled down for domestic life". Classical musicians perform in the living room but it's a "rare moment" when Roth's parents stand together to see guests out. As an only child, or "fils unique", Roth recites French poetry, cultivates interests and imitates adults as he tries to win his father's approval.

He's 14 when he learns that his father has become infected with HIV while treating a patient at the hospital where he works as a doctor. The family conceal the illness from the outside world; by the time his father dies in 1993, Roth is a literature student at Columbia University and, after graduating, he moves to Paris to study under Jacques Derrida.

Literary theory – described here as, "the persistent critique of what we cannot not inhabit" – shapes the book's analytical idiom. "Those weren't really things one was supposed to feel guilty for, but it wasn't something I couldn't not feel guilty about either," Roth – who went on to co-found the literary magazine n+1 – says of his privileged background. Returning to New York, he's distressed to encounter bits of his past and alarmed when they vanish.

Roth is understandably confused when his aunt publishes a memoir that implies his father was a closeted homosexual. His mother, with whom Roth has a difficult relationship, denies this but, while pursuing a doctorate at Yale, he re-reads his father's favourite authors – Goncharov, Mann, Turgenev – in search of clues. The "swirling momentum of emotions" involved in this "reading my father reading" demands patience as Roth gets lost in the mysteries surrounding his loss and emerges with few answers.

The Scientists is highly intelligent, but to call a debut so concerned with uncertainty "assured" would misrepresent its complexity. The episodic structure creates a sense of dislocation so that the ending, when Roth makes discoveries and recovers those aspects of himself he needs to live and write free from the shame that consumed his father, provides hard-earned catharsis.