It wasn't that Hannah Pool's birth family in Eritrea didn't want to renew contact with her. When Pool was a university student in Liverpool, an older brother wrote her a letter. She read it, but didn't know how to cope with it emotionally. So she didn't respond. For nine years. The length of her silence underlines how ambivalent Pool felt about her unknown African relatives. Adopted as an infant from an orphanage in always-troubled Eritrea, she had grown up mostly in England, with her British adoptive family. Her adoptive father, an academic expert on Eritrea, was always open about her origins. Pool became a journalist, living a sophisticated urban life in London, but, like virtually every adopted child, she wondered: What were my birth parents like? Do I have siblings? Who do I look like? And, most painfully, why did they give me away?
At 29, Pool finally decided to find the answers, and My Fathers' Daughter is the result. Her mother had died at her birth, but she found a living father with numerous children, who welcomed her back into their world with excitement and generosity. Pool was thrilled. But she was also terrified, frustrated, fascinated and everything in between. Her moving memoir is a narrative of her inner thoughts as she meets her family, in the Eritrean capital and in remote villages.
Her style is candid and beguiling: she likens the meetings to "first dates," as she worries about what she's wearing and what on earth she should say to these strangers. She learns how British she is. But she also learns that she looks like her mother, has the same temperament as an older sister, and was never forgotten by her father. When she visits him, he is mildly disapproving of her Western clothes and hair, but unquestioningly cares for her welfare and happiness.
As the plural "fathers" indicates in the book's title, Pool believes she has come to terms with her dual identity. She is still part of "dad's" family in England, but she now knows she belongs to an extended clan that she is still discovering.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.