54 – ‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

Once upon a time (as my daughter insists every story should begin – even if it’s from the local newspaper), I bought a book for $5 at Borders, put it in my one of my many bookcases and promptly forgot about it. Could happen to anyone. Recently, it caught my attention (I’m not sure how; it wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary), and I put it on my pile of books to read – i.e. books I haven’t read yet. As I got it out, I noticed on the cover that it had been short-listed for the Booker Prize – the major British literary prize which is open to novels written in English by Commonwealth authors (no Americans allowed) – in 1999, which made me think I’d give it a go.

Now comes the twist in the tale. One of the inspirations for my deciding to start this very book blog was an example I found via Facebook, a wonderful blog created by a Canadian by the name of Colleen Shea, and, having recently rediscovered this site, I decided to browse through some old posts. Now Colleen, who seems to have a lot in common with me in terms of book taste (apart from a liking for mediaeval French literature which I don’t really share), also started off with the whole 50-Book Challenge, and one of the posts listed her favourite and not-so favourite books of the year. Guess where ‘Our Fathers’ ended up…

Whether a masterpiece or a pile of rubbish, however, ‘Our Fathers’ was always going to ring true with me. A tale of disillusionment and anger set amongst the soaring tower blocks of Glasgow and Ayr, the book focuses on the lives of Jamie Bawn, his alcoholic father, Robert, and Jamie’s grandfather, Hugh, a social reformer who single-handedly pushes the adoption of high-rise flats to replace Glasgow’s seedy tenements. In a neat twist of fate, with the concept of cheap, mass housing in tower blocks consigned to history, Jamie is now responsible for tearing down the very buildings his granddad put up.

This sense of disillusionment with what has come before, extends to the country as a whole. While Hugh, and many old men like him (including one of Jamie’s teachers), rage blindly against the wrong done to the Scots by the English and drown their centuries-old grievances in whisky, song and Robbie Burns’ poetry, others attempt to get on with their lives in a country which is struggling to come to terms with its identity. For this reason, Jamie, now living in Liverpool, feels awkward on his return north of the border, abused as ‘soft’ by his granddad and other men he encounters, different by virtue of having crossed over to live with the ‘auld enemy’.

In fact, Jamie, like his country of birth, seems to have put his life on hold. Unwilling to commit to a relationship (or a family), it takes his trip home to show him that change is possible. Over the few months he spends with Hugh during his final illness, Jamie changes, both in terms of his attitude towards his grandfather (and his grandfather’s flawed vision of ‘cities in the sky’) and his decision to move on, as both his mother and estranged father have managed to do.

To be fair, the ideas and people in this book were always going to resonate with me. As a mid-thirties ex-patriate with a Celtic background (and memories of a hell of a lot of drinking), it was extremely easy (sometimes frighteningly so) to put myself into Jamie’s shoes. Were it not for the fact that the journey from Melbourne to Coventry takes just a little bit longer than Jamie’s train ride from Liverpool to Glasgow, this is a trip which I could well see myself making. And where do I live now? In the sleepy Melbourne suburb of Berwick, named after the Scottish city in which a certain Jamie Bawn was born…

However, before you all decide that in the case of Booker v Blogger, the jury has unanimously found in favour of the plaintiff, I should, in fairness, address the case for the defence. Leaving aside my emotional involvement, the story did drag a little at times, and I can see how, for someone less personally involved in the events, the book might be hard to get into. I also thought that the writing, at times, was very subject-verb-object-full stop; anyone who has ever attempted to follow my tortured, relative-clause-laden writing (and that means you, dear reader!) will understand that I like my prose a little more florid than that.

Still, I’m giving this a thumbs up for now, despite the reservations noted above. It’s always interesting to read a book which touches on themes and places close to your heart (which isn’t always the case with my Russian classics and contemporary Japanese novels). Next time I go back to my home country, I’ll have Jamie’s story in mind. Not to get me to change anything in my life (we’re not that similar); just to remind me to be nice to my family. Now if that’s the only thing I get from this book, then it was well worth the $5.

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2 thoughts on “54 – ‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

  1. Great post! It's not that I couldn't identity with the character(s) that made me not enjoy the book – because I could identify in many cases. But two things: 1) identifying with characters isn't actually a prerequisite for my liking a tome at all. 2) It was really the writing style of Our Fathers that drove me batty.

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  2. As mentioned, a little too dry for me as well… I think, on reflection, that will stop me rushing out to buy any more of his novels (or even buying them on-line, the lazy way).

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