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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



  My Father's Fortune: A Life; Faber and Faber

So engrossing is Michael Frayn’s memoir about his father, you wonder if we lost a fine prose writer when Frayn became a playwright. 
But of course, Frayn, though best known for plays as diverse as the incredibly funny Noises Off and the incredibly thought-provoking Copenhagen, is a Booker short-listed writer of novels too, so it should be no surprise that he copes with the disciplines of the memoir with the accomplishment he exhibits in his other writings. 
It is the modesty of the book that impresses. This is appropriate when the subject, Frayn’s father, is a man who the author describes as having trod lightly on the earth – a man who left little evidence that he lived. Yet still Frayn’s portrait of Tommy makes a compelling read. Born into poverty, Tommy lived by his wits and made a living from selling roofing materials. And he attracted the kind of luck that the people who have it know is down to hard graft. 
Perhaps the only genuine good fortune he had was the evening that his friend invited him to a party, which is where Tommy met the woman who would become Frayn’s mother. With gentle humour and a forensic eye, Frayn tells the story of their meeting, their union, their life together. The moment his mother died suddenly of a heart attack is written with such understatement, you almost have to read the pages twice before realising how devastating the events are. 
But this book is very far from that already hackneyed genre of the misery memoir. Frayn paints a portrait of a family whose good humour is rooted in his amiable father’s innate optimism, and with it he incidentally draws a whole strata of slightly eccentric but mostly decent English folk. Most muddled through the war as best they could, though few had Tommy’s entrepreneurial instinct, which turned their back garden into a home for a flock of ducks so that the family was never without fresh eggs during the war. (Why not chickens is not explained). 
Next to the firestorm that engulfed most of Europe, life in this relatively peaceful south London suburb – peaceful, that is, other than the constant threat of German bombs and the occasional random blasts from V1 and V2 rockets – is a neglected territory. 
Yet despite its societal observations, this is a book that is always intensely personal. A seam of guilt runs through the pages, as if Frayn felt bad for not being the kind of person his unacademic father would have chosen as a friend, or the kind of son who would never captain his country as his father dreamed he once would. It is a common kind of guilt. But it is expressed here with the rarest eloquence. 


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