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This Party’s Got to Stop

July 31, 2010

Children who lose a parent sometimes express their grief by behaving badly. Rupert Thomson was eight when his mother died, and he became quieter, taking on more responsibility, caring for his father. It is twenty years later, on the death of his father in 1984, that the bad behaviour begins. Rupert and his brothers, Robin and Ralph, move back into their father’s house and for no clear reason live there until it is sold seven months later.

Thomson originally set out to write a memoir of what happened in those months, beginning with his father’s death and ending with a burning bed. It didn’t work. He found himself seeking answers to questions about the death of his mother and his estrangement from his brother Ralph. He visited family members, asking questions about himself, his brothers, his parents. What were we like? What were they like?

The result is a masterful family story about death and loss, the “fragility of life bestowed for an uncertain time.” The impact of losing his mother becomes clearer. “This party’s got to stop” is uttered by a timid policeman responding to a noise complaint during one of the brothers’ rampages, but it becomes a lament: life is the party that stops. “My mother’s death taught me that the things I took for granted could be taken from me.”

On the other side of the seven-month party is the rift with his brother and the possibility of reunion. For me this was the best part of the book, demonstrating the startling effect of allowing oneself to see the other person’s perspective. In the end, Thomson finds that the important answers are to questions he didn’t ask.

To tell the story, Thomson flips back and forward in time, between 1984, 1964 and 2007, and points in between. But we are never confused – he uses the technique to build up the story, to establish links between what happens in different time periods, and to follow his changing perspectives. It enables readers to cry ‘Yes!’ when they and the author have simultaneous epiphanies.

The structure is a joy, but so is the prose, the imagery and the humour. For a book about death and loss, it is very funny.

This is Thomson’s first non-fiction book after eight novels. It shows how critical the skills of fiction writing are to the creation of an engaging memoir.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    August 18, 2010 8:56 pm

    An engaging review, some interesting questions raised and your final sentence is very true.

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