Novel of the week

Our Fathers

Andrew O'Hagan <em>Faber & Faber, 282pp, £16.99</em>

A work of thoughtful reportage, Andrew O'Hagan's first book, The Missing, was a street-elegy to the undocumented lives of the lost. Although not a novel, it often read like one, the characters eerily alive in their shadowy worlds. Here was a Britain in which people could disappear faster than their shadows and we were being asked to watch them go.

Our Fathers, O'Hagan's debut novel, takes up one of the aims of the earlier book: "to find pattern and passion among the boiling contradictions of my childhood". Jamie Bawn, the Berwick-born narrator, relinquishes the "fine English solvency" of his new life in Liverpool to return to his dying grandfather in Ayrshire. This prompts a period of soul-searching as he seeks to reclaim a place within his family's heritage. But it is not until 50 pages in, when Jamie's grandparents take centre stage, that the writing begins to crackle with clarity, with its energy and rough poetry. The effect is a bit like listening to a half-drunk raconteur who promises more than just the gift of the gab.

Jamie's grandfather, Hugh Bawn, was a socialist town planner. His high-rise flats stood as testament to the idealism of his time - "the old labour men just loved to talk housing". Later, as demands change, they are demolished and Hugh is investigated for corruption. His wife, Margaret, a florist, is a quieter but equally important presence. As a boy, Jamie was enthralled by her "kitchen seminars". He remembers the poetry, the scents, the family anecdotes. "That's your history there," she tells him.

It's a book of set pieces, many of them to be savoured. Jamie's first sexual experience, a hand-job from Father Timothy, is a beautifully worked scene, tender and terrifying. His reunion with his mother is handled with understanding, as he realises for the first time that she "looked like a woman who was having sex".

Despite the title it is the women in the novel who show most spirit, as they stand their ground against the men who "were made for grief". Euphemia Bawn, Jamie's great-grandmother, protested against the evictions of 1915, becoming a Glasgow councillor, a "builder of the Labour Party". We are everywhere reminded of how small truths and untruths can trickle down the years; but what's less keenly suggested is how a present perspective can, in turn, distort or embellish the past. At one point, Jamie devastates his grandparents with his revisionist ideas of history.

Yet the politics are never obtrusive; the characters are too believable to be mere constructs, except, perhaps, for Jamie himself. He remains rather vague, a mouthpiece, but this impedes the narrative only when information about his present life - his job, his girlfriend's abortion - is introduced too late to be of much use. The two-page eulogy to his girlfriend and her "pristine vapours" underscores the dangers of a style that works by repetition and accumulation. When the poetry is overdone, the dramatic tension dissipates.

This happens later in the novel when, having been moved by the poignant death of Jamie's grandfather (the corpse was like "a bird in the road with its feathers raised in shock"), the reader is taken through a tedious funeral service which irritatingly spells out what we already know. Similarly, the concluding section of the novel - Jamie's reconciliation with his father - feels forced, "a never-ending chaos, a spew of losses, the sad and perpetual ruin of life". Still, for a book about love and loss it seldom lapses into sentimentality.

If The Missing was almost a novel, Our Fathers is not quite one. It's a "happy lament" to the old Scottish fathers of tower blocks and steelworks, but also vividly contemporary in its urgency and intent; O'Hagan never fails to hear the claims of his characters. As the eyes of Jamie's grandmother are said to suggest: "I trust you have listened; I trust you will always be listening."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet