Digging up the past

<strong>Family Romance: a memoir</strong>

John Lanchester <em>Faber & Faber, 392pp, £16.99</em>

We live, eat and socialise together, but how much do any of us really know about our families? Unlike with friends, we assume we learn all there is to know about each other purely by osmosis. But John Lanchester’s memoir illustrates that in no other context are there so many skeletons in the closet.

Lanchester, a contributing editor of the London Review of Books, sets out the story of his family, which is more interesting than most. It is only after his mother’s death that he discovers she used to be a nun, and that she lied about her age upon meeting Lanchester’s father, scared that he would deem her too old for marriage and a family. The author also traces his father’s childhood separation from his parents during the war, as well as his grandparents’ roots in Rhodesia and Ireland. But the narrative is dominated by his mother’s story: the cruel rejection her parents dished out to her when she decided to stop being a nun at the age of 17, and the hardships she suffered in the ensuing years.

Lanchester tells his family’s story in an interesting and inclusive manner, never coming across as narcissistic. In the final chapter, he describes how his own panic attacks and breakdown were linked to his mother’s secret past. But this is done without bitterness or blame. It is, in the round, a wise and revealing read.