Magazine article The Spectator

An Account of the Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

An Account of the Mind

Article excerpt


by Andrew O'Hagan

Faber, L16.99, pp. 282

It is always interesting, and inevitably seems significant, when a writer's first book is a non-fiction account of the problems in the place where he grew up (which, roughly speaking, is what Andrew O'Hagan's The Missing was) and then his second turns out to be a novel dealing with much the same material. Has the author turned to fiction in order to feel less constrained? Or because he wants the chance to use his imagination to convey rather more than mere observation can?

Whatever the reasons, Our Fathers succeeds in arousing just as much admiration as The Missing did. There's the same sense of definite purpose about the writing, but now there's also an involvement and passion about it which lifts it way out of the league of social documentary.

It is a novel first and foremost about what it means to be a child born into a family some of whose menfolk regard Scotland as the whole globe. Jamie, the narrator, both hates and yet loves this heritage. When the hatred got the upper hand, he fled to Liverpool as soon as he could, but now he has returned to be with his grandfather Hugh, who is dying. Hugh rescued Jamie as a child from his father, Hugh's son, a violent man who thought the books Jamie cowered behind 'a load of shite'. Hugh, to Jamie then, was a hero, an idealist obsessed with the building of tower blocks which were to be high-tech castles in the air which would change the lives of those rescued from Glasgow's slums and make them reach upwards in every sense.

The child Jamie believed in his grandfather's vision, and in everything he was taught about the history of Scotland, a sad and curious catalogue of betrayal and domination by the English. The adult Jamie has learned differently. His grandfather's idealism and his vision in general are suspect, after all, yet nevertheless Jamie wants him to die still believing in himself. …

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