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From Barnes & NobleThe End of Idealism
With violent energy in life, and violent refusal as they near their deaths, the two generations of patriarchs in Andrew O'Hagan's debut novel aren't easy for a son to bear. Jamie Bawn leaves his childhood home to escape his father's drunken rages. He joins his grandfather, a powerful city planner in Glasgow, where he learns the elder man's craft—and then must leave again, rejecting his grandfather's suffocating idealism and outsized ambitions. Now that old Hugh is dying, Jamie returns to Scotland from his life in Liverpool. Hugh wants to engage him in a new sort of project: to acknowledge that the socialist housing utopia was the right dream after all, and—as a finance scandal unfolds—to save the old man's reputation from the wrecking ball.
Our Fathers is a quiet knockout. Hailed at its appearance in England earlier this year, it well deserves its recent inclusion on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. Observers of the usual trends in present-day fiction will be prepared to categorize it in a couple of words: memory, family, national identity. But O'Hagan knows the debates, and he knows how to step right over them. Memory isn't sacrosanct in O'Hagan's novel; it's a fund of gray truths and lies to be sifted. Family isn't the source of one's truest self, requiring some emotional reconciliation; it's a collection of troubled people who sometimes must be left to themselves. This is restrained fiction, which knows how to use its restraint to wring more profound truths from the usual sources of melodrama: abuse, family trauma, love, politics.
Named Scottish Writer of the Year in 1998, O'Hagan has written a contemporary "Scottish" book that avoids all the traps of the label. Berwick, where the book begins, is a proper bit of England, while Ayr and Saltcoats, where the action soon moves—near to the bustle of Glasgow, looking across the water to the misty Isle of Arran—are fiercely Scots. Jamie Bawn stands between worlds. The gangs of kids who light fires in the lot outside his grandfather's building recognize him as an outsider. "We could beat the English," a proud boy declares. O'Hagan shows where Scotsmen have beaten themselves or gotten lost in rage and chauvinism. Real pride comes from a different source than mythical, kilted Highlanders. Jamie finds it in the tradition of progress, and in the poetry and agitation that gave even inexpressive people a voice.
The visit to his grandfather's deathbed starts a journey, for Jamie, through his whole family history. His great-grandmother was an activist who battled landlords in the Glasgow tenements while her husband fought in Flanders. His mother, who when he left home had been on a road to nowhere, now holds court like a queen among the confident middle-aged women of a genteel pub. Even Jamie's alcoholic father, Robert, returns at the book's end—though the reunion is not what Jamie expects.
Our Fathers is also a subtle and sophisticated meditation on the greatest architectural shift of recent times. This is the radical repudiation of modernist planning in public housing—like the much-hated multistory "projects" in American cities—and the rise of widespread aspirations for smaller-scale, more livable accommodations. The tower blocks, cement slabs, and plazas meant to create "machines for modern living" still exist in the metropolitan landscape around Glasgow. Jamie's profession is that of a manager of demolitions: He's knocking down the high-rises that his grandfather built. If ever a clunky Oedipal metaphor were in position to weigh down a book, this should be it. But O'Hagan plays the generational conflict deadpan and pulls it off brilliantly. Grandfather Hugh's motives were both merciful and arrogant. His generation worked to build a utopia, a city of castles reaching to the clouds, without reckoning the human toll.
In a long episode where Jamie squires his dying grandfather around town for one final tour—stopping to drink at the British Legion, betting at the races—Hugh demands they go to Alloway Kirk, where the poet-hero Robert Burns's father is buried. It is a moment of confrontation, a symbol of the power of fathers over the gifted offspring who can speak for them. Hugh insists Jamie climb a rickety ladder to read the inscription on the church tower's ancient bell, but Jamie experiences a revelation up there that Hugh could never imagine. "And something happened at the top of the ladder," he narrates. "A feeling came over me: light-headed, awesome, a feeling of tender mercies. The sky was all eyes: peering down the millions of years; blessings of light from the cold, interminable distance." The encounter with mercy and eternity is a picture of Andrew O'Hagan's achievement as well. With the past in front of him, goaded on by the Scottish inheritance and the generations of fathers, O'Hagan has surmounted their grandiose dreams to find a new poetry of his own. Compassion and cool appraisal are combined elegantly in this first novel; it is surely one of the most remarkable books of the year.
Mark Greif is a writer living in Boston.
About the Author
Andrew O'Hagan was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He serves on the editorial board of The London Review of Books, is a contributing editor to Granta, and writes for the Guardian. In 1998 he was named Scottish Writer of the Year. His previous book, The Missing, was a finalist for several awards.