Where new writing finds its voice

This Party’s Got To Stop

Niven Govinden

Rupert Thomson
Granta Books, 2010

For a novelist of stylistic ambition and daring – for this reviewer, most keenly felt in his last two novels Divided Kingdom, and Death of a Murderer – it’s something of a curveball to find Rupert Thomson turning to memoir for his latest book. After eight acclaimed novels, it would be a fair assumption that non-fiction figured low on his list of priorities, so in the first instance, the appearance of this book is surprising. In today’s publishing climate, where literary memoirs can become cash cows in a transformative act that serious fiction is often unable to replicate, the cynical among us may wonder if the need for a novelist to rebrand mid-career is a necessary one.

It all depends, of course, on whether the story is worth telling. In Thomson’s case it is: it’s a mesmerising tale of grief and brotherly dysfunction, one that both grips from the outset and brushes all cynical cobwebs away.

Thomson’s mother died suddenly when he was very young. Twenty years later, so does his father, and Rupert and his two brothers converge on the family home to confront both their grief and each other. In these somewhat dark circumstances, there is, at least in the early stages of the book, something wonderful about the three brothers choosing to live together in their childhood home. That this living arrangement endures, however, is mostly down to their father’s request in his will that they deal with his Eastbourne property ‘with no others present, no parasites, no hangers-on, no layabouts’.

Still, their need to be with each other is apparent. Thomson plays down the mawkish possibility of three orphans (and wife) protectively banding together without realising why. Though shell-shocked, they are each defiant and remarkably sanguine about their father’s death, something they have been long expecting since their mother’s passing. It’s only as the story progresses that the wounds of both deaths fully reveal themselves.

Most strikingly, the siblings are self-protective to the point of closure, each unable to communicate with the other. Rupert, worried about his youngest brother Robin, shares their father’s bed with him and engages him in a survival tactic of nihilistic partying. Ralph, his wife Vivian and their young baby, Greta, stay locked in their room without explaining why. Outwardly, it’s this latter event which unnerves Rupert the most and sews the seed of a two-decade rift between Rupert and Ralph: ‘It was in that part of the house that I spent hours praying for my father to stay alive […] But now Ralph and Vivian have locked me out. They might almost be trying to tell me that there are areas of my life I have no access to. As if I didn’t know.’

Nights in the kitchen are filled with atmosphere and brotherly mistrust. By day they busy themselves with clearing the house ready for sale. Knowing most of the furniture cannot be sold, they embark on an ambitious bonfire programme in the garden. This includes many of their father’s paintings and sketches – one more way in which Rupert feels he has failed his father.

Their hometown Eastbourne appears as a mythic place: one that has immeasurably traumatised them as young children, and stultified them in adulthood. It is a neighbourhood of crap nightclubs, residential petitions against Rupert and Robin’s anti-social behaviour (outwardly the bonfires, but most probably their parasites and hangers-on), and tree-lined streets of grand-ish houses and tennis clubs, places where he feels that they don’t really belong.

In manhood, Rupert’s life is city-focused: Berlin, London, and later, New York. He is running from something that is inescapable in Eastbourne: slowing down, a sense of unfillable space, and mostly, the silence of his childhood, living with a disabled father still grieving for his wife.

The writing is perfectly pitched: beautifully honest and tenderly brutal in its insight. It’s also darkly funny, demonstrating that in the worst of times only a sick sense of humour can get you through. His is an eye that holds fast on detail: the steel from Ralph’s knife – one which matches his wife’s, bought for ‘protection’ – reflecting on the kitchen ceiling; the stumble of the pall bearer at his father’s funeral; watery drinks at the local nightspot.

With the house finally sold and the brothers moving on, the last third of the book shifts gear from nostalgia to mystery-solving, as Rupert and Ralph finally make contact after twenty years, with the former travelling to Shanghai to be reconciled. A much-wanted sense of resolution occurs, satisfyingly blokey and unsentimental, but also here is one final revelation: that of blindly unreliable narrator. Thomson reminding us that this story has not one side, but three, with Ralph giving his perspective on what really happened in those three months in Eastbourne. This final illumination is a fitting end is to a raw, fragile family history period stunningly brought to life.