Slave to Daddy

Keening wails and five-hour breakfasts: Christina Patterson on an addition to pater-familiar literature

Germaine Greer, Philip Roth and Sharon Olds are among a crop of writers who have published recent high-profile books about dead and dying fathers. Usually described as "painfully honest", they herald some kind of a trend towards washing your post-Freudian complexities in public. The big question, however, is what, if anything, can be added to the genre after Blake Morrison's wonderful, moving and funny memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Susan Wicks is uncowed by this. One of last year's New Generation poets, she has published two collections, Singing Underwater and Open Diagnosis. Slightly uneven, both reveal a startling and often surreal imagination, a preoccupation with birth, sex and the cycle of life and a cool, unflinching gaze. It is this gaze - detached, precise, observant - that sets the tone of her memoir, an account that proves to be utterly without self-pity. It begins (and ends) with the news of her mother's death, the event she has feared and imagined all her life. Her father's response is "a strange sound, an odd kind of high wailing", a torrent of grief that becomes and remains a part of him. From this point on, he is identifiable by "the sound of his keening", a word which gives a weird dignity to his despair. And from this point on, Wicks is a slave to a father who is catapulted into old age, loneliness and dependency.

Her account seems at first to be a random collection of snippets and jottings. In fact, it is very carefully structured, a collage of visits to her father, bearing casseroles and clean clothes, memories of childhood, dreams, fantasies and refrains. All are recounted in the same dispassionate, clear prose, spare to the point of extreme economy. The result has a staccato and fragmented quality that feels appropriate for a subject which could, in other hands, have sunk into nostalgic sentimentality. With a poet's eye, she selects details, images and snatches of dialogue that build up a convincing picture of her father's character, his relationship with her mother and their life together as a family.

An interesting tension emerges between the child's hero-worship of a father who makes wonderful toys and is admired by all her friends and the adult's clear perception of a man dominated by his lifelong desire for attention. A further tension is added by fantasies and dreams. It is here that the stress, anxiety and sheer horror of it all surfaces. Wicks the loyal and loving daughter is endlessly patient, kind and solicitous, even though it takes her father "more than five hours ... to have his breakfast and get dressed". Faced with the sight of him "clinging to the banisters and wailing", his utter helplessness and vulnerability, she has dreams about fighting off dead limbs. She also has fantasies of escape, of being found by her father wearing her mother's huge, custom-made bra, even of suffocating him. These are recounted in the future tense and their true status - dream? reality? desire? - is not immediately clear. They add texture and uncertainty to the narrative, a kind of contained, poetic wildness.

Two central images emerge, symbols of love and ambivalence. The first is the driving mentioned in the title. Wicks's frequent car journeys to visit her father are among her happiest moments, taking her to the person she loves so much and also offering the fantasy of escape from that responsibility. They are simultaneously a symbol of enslavement and freedom, life-as-a- journey, suspended animation and waiting for death. The second is the kite whose string is on the cover. Eric Wicks made beautiful kites for his daughter, kites she would fly proudly and then, to his horror, by accident, release. This memory is a wonderful, if rather literal, symbol of the bond between father and daughter and also of uncertainty, transience and letting go.

This book is, above all, a record of love and its capacity to surprise. It is a tribute to a man who was not particularly talented, bright or handsome, but who was made extraordinary by the love he gave and received. In spite of all the frustration, irritation and anxiety, there is no sense of unfinished business, tangled knots orLarkin's infamous dictum. No father could ask for more.

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