In the Dark Room, by Brian Dillon

From the house of the dead

Jonathan Gibbs
Friday 09 December 2005 01:00

There are plenty of memoirs of unhappy childhoods on our shelves. Few of them, though, have the intelligence or rigour of this first book by critic Brian Dillon, which is less a personal narrative than an anguished monument to the idea of memory itself.

Although far from harsh by the standards demanded by the bestseller lists, Dillon's was a childhood anyone would be glad to forget. Both his parents were dead by his early twenties, and his adolescence was darkened by his mother's scleroderma - an auto-immune disease that kept her in "solid and unremitting pain" and whose physical ravages inspired a decade-long gap in the family photo album.

Photographs make up one of the five categories of relic through which Dillon attempts to recall a past long consigned to oblivion. His approach is to try to fix down the manner in which memories attach themselves to objects and constructs: how memories of a house are built up through something as slight as "the sudden acoustic shift" when he opened a bathroom door. The fastidiousness with which Dillon performs his task can make In the Dark Room heavy going; the book's distinction is in the care with which it handles its fragments. Similarly, Dillon does a fine job of balancing honesty with tact. The more we learn about his upbringing - about how his mother's illness exacerbated her religious leanings, and his father, whose stiff pose of grief at the kitchen window Dillon finds himself replicating in his turn - the more we understand what he has turned away from, and what an effort it is to turn back.

Of all the cultural heavyweights he calls as witness (such as Barthes, Benjamin and Sebald), none fits Dillon's book better than Rachel Whiteread. His home was as filled with silence, sulky, embarrassed and pained, as was her "House" with miraculously solidified space. In the Dark Room is an equally impressive achievement.

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