My Father's Fortune

This is a slightly unusual book - a kind of print version of the BBC's highly successful television series Who Do You Think You Are?, about family history. True, its author, the distinguished playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, does not reach all that far back into his genealogical tree, contenting himself with tracing his descent from his grandparents. But the formula remains much the same. What Frayn presents us with is an effort to establish his own identity by exploring "the unknown place" represented in his origins.

It is, as one would expect from so accomplished a writer, beautifully done. The central figure in the story is the author's own father, a builders' commercial traveller who has got through a pretty hard life on the strength of a smile and a certain verbal resourcefulness (all the more important once he becomes virtually stone-deaf).

His was not a life of astounding success - he eventually made it from technical representative to sales manager of the firm for which he worked - but it was, domestically at least, a pretty varied existence: two wives (the second a relatively wealthy widow), two children of his first marriage (the author had a younger sister, Jill) and a path that led all the way from the poorer part of Holloway, in north London, to the suburban respectability of Ewell, next door to Epsom, in Surrey.

Always something of an odd-man-out - his son estimates that at one point he must have been just about the only Labour voter in Ewell village - he nevertheless possessed a gregarious disposition, getting on with people as any travelling salesman must.

In one sense, this book is probably best seen as an act of reparation. The author is haunted by the fear that he was not kind enough to his father while he was alive, and is certainly not slow at reproaching himself for letting him down so often (though it is hardly Frayn's fault that he was not a natural games player, or that he inherited a talent for sweeping all emotional matters under the carpet). The central fact in their lives together was Frayn's mother's sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 41. The measure of just how odd a household it then became is that, once she had been laid to rest in Ewell churchyard, she was never mentioned again in any conversation between father and children. "She was," Frayn writes, for once slightly bitterly, "airbrushed out of the historical record, like one of Stalin's victims."

He admits to finding this curious, but does not seem to think it offensive in the way that his sister came to ("He was a rotten father," Jill blurts out at her brother, years later). But that is not a thought the author will ever allow himself to entertain, maintaining slightly improbably that everything he is, he owes to his male parent. Hence, Frayn Sr even suggests the book's title (otherwise a rather strange one for a man who left just £1,500).

This disagreement between siblings highlights the book's one great flaw: the author's total failure to give anything like the same attention to his mother as he does to his father. He mentions that, after her death, he was never given a photograph of her, and more or less owns up to lacking any vivid memory of her. But that strikes me as odd. It is easier to understand his sister's lack of clear memory: she, after all, was only eight when their mother died. But one would expect there to have been a more defined picture at 12, as the author was at the time. If it ever existed, it certainly does not show here - an omission all the more surprising because we get sharply etched portraits of "Nanny" (Frayn's grandmother, who came to live with them well before her daughter died), and even of a slightly bumbling Uncle Sid who did his best to comfort his nephew by building him a model boat.

Yet, what matters in a book of this kind is not just the domestic detail, but the general background of the lost world against which it is written. Here, the author is remarkably strong. It so happens that I spent my teenage years in neighbouring Epsom and I can vouch for nearly all the local colour that he supplies - down to and including the local bus numbers and the name of the formidable Irish doctor who had one of the largest practices in the area (he gets, I think, only one thing wrong: the title of the local rag was not the Epsom and Ewell Gazette, but the Epsom and Ewell Herald).

More than this, however, he is wonderfully good on atmosphere. John Betjeman may have invented "Metroland" and Julian Barnes, with his novel of the same name, seen how to market it - but, as he showed in his last work of fiction, Spies, covering much the same social and geographic area, Frayn knows how to evoke it. In the vast canon of his work - 15 plays, ten novels, nine translations - this may not be his most significant contribution to the literature of our time. Yet it remains a refreshing addition to the oeuvre, not least for the light it throws on the character of someone who, for all his fame, has always been an intensely private individual.

My Father's Fortune
Michael Frayn
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £15.99

Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman from 1972-78