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Will This House Last Forever? is the kind of book you almost feel guilty reading, not to mention reviewing. Xanthi Barker’s memoir is an unremittingly intimate account of the death of her poet father, with whom she shared a sometimes turbulent relationship. And although I found the book an excellent read, I often felt as though I were trespassing into areas of the author’s mind I had no business visiting, which is, no doubt, proof of how powerfully she evokes the rawness of the grieving process.
As soon as I heard about Barker’s memoir, I was intrigued since life-writing is my favourite literary genre. And, like the writer, I lost my father when I was young. While I was 18, she was in her mid-20s. I expected to instantly feel a connection with everything she had experienced, but my preconception grossly oversimplified the grieving process, which as the book demonstrates, is both poignantly universal and unbearably personal.
From the opening sections, which describe the writer’s experiences three years after her father Sebastian passed away from lung cancer, the strength of both her emotion and her writing skills is clear: “When someone says to me they are going to see their dad, a hollowness gapes invisibly in my chest,” she writes. It’s a sensation I still experience 20 years after my own father died.
At this stage, Barker’s father exists in an ambivalent state in her mind: both alive and not alive. Although he is undeniably dead due to the fact Barker has the receipt for his death certificate in a brown box made to look like an old-fashioned book, he is also alive because she believes she saw him at the bus stop early one morning.
From the outset, it’s easy to understand Barker’s fascination with her father, whom, with echoes of Sylvia Plath, she often refers to as “daddy.” There is an almost fairy-tale-like poetry to her description of her father building a house from scratch alongside villagers in Greece shortly after he met her mother. And even the account of his near-compulsive drinking is strangely compelling. In one of his poems, he had written with an infectious timbre:
It is so appalling
Not to be drunk
While the blackbird is singing
And the stars penetrate the sunbeam
In the orchards of paradise.
However intense the writer’s grief, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book – and something of which I feel rather jealous – is Barker’s willingness to write candidly about her father’s shortcomings and, particularly, his abandonment of his wife and children.
She recalls an incident from her teenage years in which her father invited a taxi driver and his family to the Barker home in Greece. Enamoured with the family’s teenage daughter, he says: “I would give sixteen white stallions for your daughter.” For Barker, this experience is a turning point. “Was that the moment that broke something in our respect for you, that put a false note in all your glory-days stories, after?”
In another bold move, the writer also addresses an aspect of loss few of us admit to: that the grieving process is often as much about ourselves as the person who has died. In the days before his death, she tells her father that she can’t imagine what she will do without him, to which he replies: “What you’ll do? I don’t know what I’ll do! I’ll be nowhere! How can I imagine being nowhere?”
Despite the lyricism of much of the work, Barker does not shy away from the brutal realities of illness and death. “The whole house smelled of you,” she tells her father. “This potent mix of sweat and breath and damp and mould and urine, it knocked us out. It clung to our clothes.”
Another fascinating aspect of Will This House Last Forever? is the writer’s revelation of hugely significant details about her own life, including an eating disorder and flirtation with alcoholism. What is interesting is not necessarily the revelations themselves but that they come in the middle sections of the book – at which point, we already feel we have an intimate knowledge of the writer and her history.
In the most striking example, she obliquely refers to an incident described only as “the worst thing.” While revealing few details, she writes: “it wouldn’t disappear. It wouldn’t stay folded away in my rationalising mind. I kept remembering, thinking about it. And my body would not shut up.” This drip-feeding of information subtly mirrors Barker’s conversations with her father before his death, conversations in which he explains his belief that no person ever fully knows another.
In writing Will This House Last Forever?, Barker joins a sorority of great female life-writers who have shared their stories in recent years. In one of the best examples, Kerry Hudson writes poignantly about revisiting the towns in which she grew up in poverty in Lowborn, while Emily Dean deals with the passing of her entire family in Everybody Died, So I Got a Dog. Like Barker, Dean’s description of her own childhood is one of occasional chaos mixed with high levels of intellectual debate.
At several points in the book, Barker openly addresses the fact she is writing her story, telling her father: “One night, while I’m writing this, I dream you’ve found the manuscript and written the whole thing out in longhand, comments and underlines all in your scratchy green.” Her hope is that he would be interested in her work but not find himself trapped inside the pages. Even the title itself, spoken by the writer of the home built by her father and the villagers in Greece, is a reference to the mind’s attempts to eternally preserve certain moments in time.
One of the most impressive features of the book is the skill with which Barker evokes the minutiae of everyday life, the type of minutiae that doesn’t disappear because you’ve discovered your father has cancer. When Barker learns of his diagnosis, she is on her way to a new boyfriend’s house for a Wednesday night dinner party, for which she had promised to buy a Viennetta. Standing in the fruit and veg aisle in Morison’s, she wonders: “What did it mean to buy a Viennetta after finding out your dad has cancer?”
While I instantly recognized Barker’s description of such minutiae as being similar to events in my own life, there are elements of the book to which I could never relate, as no two people’s experience of loss are identical. Her father had been a published poet who left his wife and young family, mine had been a taxi driver who was married 40 years. While I had no reason to feel anger to my father as Barker felt toward hers, I also do not have published works of poetry to revisit.
After hundreds of pages exploring Barker’s grief, the closing sections do come as something of relief. Although she doesn’t deny her sadness, she has managed to integrate her feelings into a seemingly happier life in which she is no longer constantly preoccupied by loss.
She also recognises she is no longer the person she had been prior to his death. “I used to think that I would give anything, take anything, accept all the hurtful things you did, forgive all the pain you caused, if I could see you one more time.” However, she acknowledges she no longer wants this. “Trying to be a daughter to you was like holding together the shards of a broken window. But it’s not so painful anymore.”
As Will This House Last Forever? is a book you almost feel guilty reading, the memoir was, for me, also difficult to digest in one sitting, which is certainly not a criticism. In fact, the book counts as one of my new favourites of the genre. As well as offering a powerful evocation of loss, it is also wonderfully funny, brilliantly astute in its observation of everyday life, and beautifully written.
Will This House Last Forever?
By Xanthi Barker
368 pages. Tinder Press
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About Katy Ward
Katy Ward is a short story writer and journalist based in the north of England. Her fiction, which has been published in various journals in the UK and US, focuses on the themes of addiction, social class, and shattered relationships. As a journalist and editor, her work has appeared in numerous national newspapers and independent media outlets.