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There comes a point in your grown-up life when you realise that your parents are just people: human beings like anybody else. And yet they never quite lose the godlike power they once had, or the place they hold in your personal mythology. So much about their own lives is unknowable, their versions of the past full of gaps and contradictions. This is the territory Elizabeth Baines explores in her riveting new novel, Astral Travel, which centres on the figure of the late Patrick Jackson as he’s reconstructed by his writer-daughter Jo.
Jo’s relationship with Patrick is dominated by the violent punishments he metes out to her well into adolescence. Hitting your own children was nothing out of the ordinary in the fifties and sixties, but it dawns on the adult Jo that the extent of the abuse was exceptional and linked to many unresolved aspects of her father’s life. To say too much about what she discovers in the course of writing a novel about him would be to spoil the intricate plot of this great page-turner. Astral Travel is written so vividly, in such a freewheeling style, that the narrative twists and turns are navigated with ease. Despite the underlying anger, and the sadness, Jo is a likeable narrator with an ironic tone of voice and a comic sensibility.
She tells us how, from his beginnings in rural Ireland, Patrick continuously re-invents himself, marrying a local girl while on wartime service in South Wales. In the course of the novel he drags his family to the other end of Wales and across the English North and Midlands on the promise of a job, a new house or a business opportunity. Somehow, by the end of his life, he has managed his transformation into a pillar of the Masons, outwardly prosperous and generous to a fault. That, of course, is not the whole story. Jo’s search for the truth about her father, and the reasons driving the abuse, is possibly futile, though there is one final revelation that forces her to question every single one of her previous assumptions.
Astral Travel isn’t just Patrick’s story; Jo’s own life-story can be traced through its pages, along with the growth of a writer’s state of mind: ‘Always, alone in places like this, cut-off pockets of sun, in the alleyways in Prestatyn or the lanes at Llanfair, where everything small, bits of rubbish on the ground or ivy-leaved toadflax growing in the walls, was sharpened with magnified shadows and outlines of light, I would get a particular feeling: that sense of something huge and swelling, but hidden’. Passages like this remind me of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. (Mantel has a different, but equally problematic relationship with her father.)
Yet, for me, Astral Travel isn’t so much about fiction-writing as about identity. Early in the novel, when Jo’s seven, Patrick announces that he’s reclaiming his Jewish heritage – something he’s never previously mentioned. He subscribes to the Jewish Chronicle, and designs a special Star-of-David ring ‘that could catch you a nasty blow when he lashed out.’ ‘Of course he wasn’t Jewish!’ says Patrick’s older sister, the former nun. ‘There are no Jews in Ireland!’ (She’s obviously not heard of Leopold Bloom or Ulysses.) The adult Jo finds evidence in the Dublin archives to suggest Patrick’s claims were more than affectation. The multiple allegiances that she inherits – Welsh, Irish, Jewish, Methodist, Catholic and more – are just part of her struggle towards self-definition beyond patriarchal control. By the time I’d finished this wonderful novel, I was hoping for a sequel or even a series, like Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.
There’s one big question haunting Jo, and though it’s implied repeatedly and sometimes asked directly, it’s never answered. ‘He does love us really’, the little girls think when Patrick comes home with a packet of Rolos. ‘Your dad loves you really,’ their mother repeats after yet another violent chastisement. Expecting a heartwarming memoir like Angela’s Ashes, both mother and sister are disappointed by the first draft of Jo’s novel. But, she reflects, in Angela’s Ashes, ‘in spite of all the deprivations and the father’s absence, the protagonist is never in any doubt that his father loves him.’ My Daddy loves me really. But does he? How can you tell?