Our Fathers is a dense, literate novel set in Scotland. This comes as no surprise since its author, Andrew O'Hagan, is himself a Scotsman and was named Scottish Writer of the Year in 1998.
James Bawn is the narrator, a 35-year-old man traveling from Liverpool to see his dying grandfather in Ayrshire county. Though his father was an angry, abusive alcoholic, his father's father was a successful socialist politician whose grand vision and equally grand speaking voice made high-rise apartment buildings a postwar seaside reality. Granda was a priest of steel decking and concrete. But now the buildings are being demolished, and the old man also suffers decline. He rails at everyone who will listen, and often on the balcony to those who don't. Granda always wanted the world to hear him. This book gives voice to Granda, towering over his son and grandson, as the buildings he saw erected towered over the village's past.
James credits his current life to having had a childhood which was dotted with lucky islands, chief among them being his mother, his books, and his grandparents.
Of his mother, he writes of meeting her frequently after her morning shift in the bakery to share fresh baked buns, a respite from anger in the house.
James retreated into books, only to be told by his screaming father that books were only good for boring bastards who don't know how to enjoy themselves. His grandparents, to whom he fled when he could no longer endure his father's alcoholic rages, gave him room to live. They also gave him stories of the family's past, including that of his grandfather's mother, who led rent-strikers during World War I in a battle against slumlords.
O'Hagan is a lyrical writer, whose poetic turn of phrase creates an unforgettable image with a minimum of words.
Our fathers were made for grief. And all our lives we waited for sadness to happen . . . We had only the prospect of living in their wake . . . O'Hagan speaks for many of us as he concludes, Maybe there is no such thing as an ordinary trip home. ¦George Cowmeadow Bauman is the co-owner of Acorn Books in Columbus, Ohio.