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Fictionalising my father

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

It was after Sunday lunch and my father had got our family of six playing one of his games. These could be as terrifying as they were hilarious. Like a fierce conductor Dad would bang one-two-three on the arm of the sofa then shoot out a finger to indicate whose turn it was to utter or perform. On these occasions, Dad, pipe clenched between his teeth, would be beaming, gesticulating, shouting with laughter. The excitement was infectious; but there was a tension because at any moment it could all change. It was as if we were teetering on a ridge with an exhilarating view ahead, and a sheer drop below. At any moment the ridge could give way and into the depths we’d plunge.

On this day, the game involved shouting out a word beginning with a specified letter and the required number of syllables. An answer for A3, for instance, could be animal. I enjoyed this game because the one thing I was good at was words. Dad’s high spirits had rubbed off on us all; we were full of Sunday lunch, giggly, keyed-up, giddy with nervous hilarity. One-two-three thumps and the finger pointed at me. ‘M4,’ he said.

Mitsubishi!’ I shot back. I have no idea where that came from. I didn’t know what Mitsubishi was or what it meant, though I was pleased because it was an unusual word, with a gorgeous swishing sound. Maybe I’d heard it on TV? I don’t know. But the result of my momentary triumph was that we were plunged into sudden dark and cold. Dad hauled himself up, stomped from the room, slamming the door and leaving us in a hush that was somehow full of shame. And I was the most ashamed because I’d done it. Without understanding how, I’d ruined everything.

Later, I was helping with the washing up when I dared to ask Mum, ‘What’s wrong with Mitsubishi?’

‘Japanese,’ was all she said.

I did sort-of understand. At the age of twenty-two, my dad became a Far East prisoner of war when Japan took Singapore in 1942. Among thousands of others, he slaved in the jungle on the Burma-Siam railway until the war in the Far East ended (a few months later than the war in Europe). Like countless others, he suffered outrageously, both physically and mentally, but he survived. He survived to return and marry and father four children — of whom I am the third.

That Dad had been a prisoner of war was something we all knew. What I find extraordinary is that I never (and I think this is true of my siblings) thought about it. It was just an accepted family fact, a fact of life. It wasn’t until Dad died at the age of sixty, (possibly as a long-delayed reaction to the damage caused to his system by disease and starvation) that I began to ponder the fact that he never spoke about it and that none of us even asked. Or perhaps even wondered. It was as if there was a complicit silence, a sort of pact between us all, not to even think of looking into the dark.

Some years after his death I suddenly, badly, needed to know what he had suffered. I began to read everything I could find, with a vague idea that I might explore his experience in fiction. One book that made an impression on me was The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, the memoir of a Japanese prisoner of war. When I read his opinion that the children of Far East POWs are often troubled, as if they have inherited their parent’s trauma, I felt a shiver of recognition.

It was those words that gave me the key to what I wanted to write. I wanted to portray a family on the edge of a precipice, living apparently normal lives but balanced above an unacknowledged darkness, which infects and affects them all. I wanted to explore the shivery dread that occurred during our family games, or when Dad, in certain moods, would enter a room and it was if the light had been turned off.

I considered tackling the subject via nonfiction but could not see how to do it. For one thing, I didn’t feel up to the task of the research, and for another, I felt (and feel) uneasy about writing about living people; I don’t believe I have the right to own their thoughts and motivations, or to pin my partial and fleeting impressions of them to the page. I wanted to write, not so much about my father’s experience itself, but the effect his bottled-up trauma had had on the dynamics of our family — or ‘a’ family. So, I decided to find a sort of hybrid space and to write about Dad, as literally as I could, but to embed him within a fictional family. In this way I thought I could make him real but at the same time keep reality at a distance.

It is a curious experience to embed reality in fiction. It’s like the reverse of the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit in which a cartoon rabbit emerges into a realistically filmed world. I found a strangeness overcoming me as I wrote. It was as if I was writing with one hand over my eyes, writing hard and fast, not daring to look at the words. Each day I entered the little attic room with my heart beating hard. And often at night I woke with nightmares. Unearthing my father’s trauma proved much more disturbing than I’d expected. The only way I could bear the heavy pall that crept over me was to write as fast as I could, as if I was running ahead of a mudslide. I wrote the first draft of that book in six or seven weeks, many times faster than I’ve written before or since. And when I’d finished, I felt sickened and couldn’t bear to look at it. It was late October. I decided not to read it until the New Year. And I locked it away in a cupboard in the attic.

Once it was done, I went through a weirdly detached emotional period. Maybe it was a sort of breakdown. Sometimes my children would seem to me like cartoon characters, while I was real, and sometimes vice versa. Or sometimes my little family felt like the only real people in a cartoon world. Curiously, I had very little idea of what I’d written. I really couldn’t remember what I had made happen. One night, while the book was locked away, I dreamed that I opened the cupboard and every one of the two hundred or so pages consisted of nothing but Lesley Glaister Lesley Glaister Lesley Glaister.

I was a busy single mother and teacher. As the weeks rolled past, the nights grew longer and there was Christmas to prepare for, children’s excitement, Christmas trees and sparkling lights in the darkness, and I found that the awful physical and mental heaviness began to lift. The cartoon feelings dispersed, and I was able, when January came round (though with enormous trepidation) to unlock the cupboard, to read the pages, and find to my surprise and relief that they were coherent, and more than that, fulfilled something like my intention. Which is just about the best a writer can hope for. And further, after that the process of editing, of cleaning and cutting and rationalising, of polishing, felt healthy and cathartic.

Easy Peasy was published back in 1995. Exploring the Far East POW experience and subsequent family trauma seemed to lay something to rest in me for nearly thirty years. But now I am older than my dad was when he died and have found myself thinking about him more and more. Since I wrote Easy Peasy, the research process has been transformed by the internet, and many other books and films on the subject have appeared — alternative stories, fresh insights, new perspectives. I think about my father, and how I never understood him, didn’t feel the sympathy I feel now. Even my sons are older than he was when he was a POW — and the idea of them going through anything similar is utterly unbearable.

I’m revisiting the subject in the novel I’m working on now. But this time the experience is different. Thirty years ago, I blundered naively into my father’s trauma, unwittingly taking it so far inside myself that I almost became ill. Whether it’s age, distance, experience, or something else, I don’t know, but this time I seem to have been able to keep more space between myself and the research material. Rather than the childish blundering, the rude intrusion into my father’s experience, it’s as if I’m engaged in an adult conversation with him. This new feeling affords me steadiness and peace of mind alongside the creative excitement of being – more or less – in control of the unfurling of another novel. And it has kindled in me far more warmth and empathy towards my father than ever was the case when he was alive.

Lesley Glaister is the author of sixteen novels. Her first, Honour Thy Father, won Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask awards, and several others have been long- and shortlisted for literary prizes. Her most recent, Blasted Things, was published in 2020.

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