Imagined from a distance of more than four decades, an unsettling scene begins this "memoir" by one of the most original British novelists at work today. A little boy, aged nine, hears his dead mother call his name from an upstairs room. Her voice sounds "how an angel might sound, if an angel were to speak". That disembodied summons comes partnered with the memory, or vision, of dull berries on an adjacent yew – mythically, the tree of mourning, remembrance and resurrection – with "red skin covered in a milky bloom".
At once, the ground tilts under our feet. We enter that zone of hallucinatory clarity allied to soul-deep, all-pervasive doubt that readers of Thomson's fiction will intimately know. What kind of story have we started? Seemingly paranormal shocks intrude on everyday locations - here, a solid family house in Eastbourne. People act according to an iron logic of narrative that often feels alien to reason and will alike. They gather around them dream-bright imagery of an almost heraldic intensity.
This book does not "explain" the singular climate of Thomson's novels. No writer could stand further from reductive cause-and-consequence than he. All the same, it may send new and existing readers back to extraordinary fictions such as The Insult, Divided Kingdom and The Book of Revelation with their sense of mystery honed to a keener edge. His oeuvre often reminds me of a spine-shivering stanza in Auden's ballad "As I Walked Out One Evening", when "The glacier knocks in the cupboard,/ The desert sighs in the bed,/ And the crack in the tea-cup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead."
Here, those lanes twist and zigzag into always surprising routes. Wendy, Thomson's mother, died suddenly at 33 on an Eastbourne tennis court. A section in which, in 2008, the author returns to the spot – now a car park – along with her fellow-players on that July morning and tries to recreate the exact moment of her fall resembles nothing so much as the bizarre "re-enactments" in Tom McCarthy's experimental novel Remainder. Mourning, like any other human drive, can pratfall into obsessive farce.
In 1985, 21 years after Wendy's death, his father – remarried, then divorced – died alone at home. Did his chosen solitude betray a "disappointment" with his three sons? Thomson quits his German girlfriend and pleasantly grungy wannabe-writer life in Berlin. With his younger brothers and an inscrutable sister-in-law, he lives over a delirious summer - "a last wild farewell" - in the family house.
Rupert, Robin, Ralph, at home alone with an eerie girl and the spectre of a dead parent (with a further spectre in the background): they are "characters in a story, part of a myth". That surreal season, punctuated by flashes back and forwards and sidestep moves into family history, led to a 20-year estrangement from Ralph. This book's finale ends it in a bittersweet reunion.
Twin bereavements mould the memoir: "To have a family is like asking for it. Tempting fate". At birth, willy-nilly, we ask and we tempt. And every answer hurts in its own special way. For Thomson, his mother's absence combined with his father's disability – a severe war-related pneumonia that wrecked his body and darkened his spirit – to make life a "fragile gift", forever liable to slip and smash. "Life was as flimsy as the model planes I used to buy, all balsa wood and rubber bands." This party's got to stop, as local coppers tell the siblings when, in a fit of axe-wielding mayhem, they burn the family furniture on yet another purging bonfire in the garden. Chez Thomson, it stops dead.
Do not go to this book for grief counselling or for self-help sententiousness. It does not tell; it shows. After dad's departure, the rivalrous siblings suddenly sprout hammers, locks and knives, as a crackle of violence in the muggy Channel air hints at subliminal Oedipal drama. (Don't go to it for such clunking clichés, either.) It sketches feelings and relationships – the conspiratorial closeness of son and father after Wendy's death; the "shared history" with Ralph that persists through long years of suspicion – with imagistic tact and grace. Typically, Wendy's shadow "lay across me like a fall of snow".
Much of the muscle and blood of the tale flexes pulses through the manic, comic momentum of its sidelights. Excursions into the odd Thomson clan widen a landscape of loss. Take ultra-pious Uncle Reg. Did he die brained by a grandfather clock, his foot "entangled in the chains that worked the pendulum"? Or did he wake up to see his socks in flames in front of the gas fire, and promptly expire from shock? One way or another, "some kind of domestic object had been involved".
Thomson saves the very best until last. Sui generis as a stylist, he may in the moods of his locales still bring the other-worlds of JG Ballard into readers' minds. Uncannily enough, this most uncanny writer seals the reconciliation deal in a very Ballard-esque Shanghai. There the lost-lost brother works in a bank. Ralph takes Rupert on bar crawls through tower-blocks and shanty-towns in a metropolis packed with quarters that appear to inhabit (as this book does) present, past and future all at once: "Were they still under construction, or already derelict?"
If this haunting, haunted work makes up a "jigsaw" of grief, then the lamp-lit final scenes that end in "the murky grey-brown of a Shanghai dawn" show us that some pieces will never quite fit. Ballard aside, only one other modern British author has such a mastery of this liminal terrain where then and now, self and others, dream and fact, habitually intersect. Kazuo Ishiguro also set a book partly in Shanghai, with a labyrinthine quest to make sense of memories and lay old losses to rest. Its title? When We Were Orphans.Reuse content