Review: Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

travelsTravelling in India, Karen Jennings visits an art gallery where “holograms of rare gold artefacts line the wall. A notice declares that precious items might be stolen and so holograms are the next best thing. They are fuzzy, unclear. It is like looking at an object at the bottom of a dirty pond.” It is a striking image that made me think of writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. In the hands of a mediocre writer, recollections and artefacts can become like these blurred holograms. But Karen Jennings is not a mediocre writer.

Travels with My Father is a deeply engaging book in which Jennings attempts to come to grips with the death of her father and the memories and records she has of his life and their relationship. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows what a merciless and curious creature grief can be. Jennings’s father died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. Soon after the father’s death, the mother decides to sell the “big house” they lived in and Jennings falls in love with Juliano. The book describes the processes involved in these endings and beginnings the family tries to navigate in the wake of the tragedy.

There is anger and silence, depression and incredulity. These are not uncommon reactions, but every story of grief is intimate and individual, too. Jennings delves into her family history and explores the many journeys that define her own life and the lives of her relatives, some of whom are larger than life characters.

During a visit in Tasmania where her uncle and aunt live, she feels like “a prisoner serving my time.” She plans her own death. Her family surprises her with a weekend away. Together they visit Port Arthur, a former convict settlement, a place which had been her father’s favourite when he’d explored the Tasman Peninsula years earlier. Jennings embeds her own struggles with depression and isolation into the story of the settlement and the mental illnesses convicts suffered during imprisonment. At the same time she weaves family tales of addiction, abuse, and ghost haunting into the narrative.

Trying to understand her experiences, she makes fascinating, often unexpected, links between the various stories. And while she enquires into the private with a fine brush, she paints a much larger picture. In 1982, her father, who used to be teacher, played the role of Captain von Trapp in an adaptation of The Sound of Music and received a certificate for the performance on the day Jennings was born. Years later, sitting in the school hall where the musical had been staged, she remembers a man “in a polyester green suit, smelling of soap and armpits. A church-going man who touched girls, who stole, who was a bigot. A man who hated my father.” Her father dared to stand up to this man who was his superior, but was professionally crushed as a result. He later wrote a poem about his retirement: “After 35 years / What I need is / The screaming ecstasy of silence.” Jennings travels to Mondsee in Austria to follow in the footsteps of the musical family and she meditates on the disappointment we feel “in our parents … That they had to live a life of smallness.”

Her father did not wish for a funeral or a memorial: “He wanted to be cremated, scattered, and then forgotten.” He made these instructions in writing, but they were found long after his death and a service at which hundreds of people paid their respects. One of them was a pupil her father had taught in the 1970s. He sends her a letter chronicling how her father had changed his life for the better. The memories of others and their gestures of gratitude make her realise that her “pity is meaningless” and her “bitterness misplaced”.

She visits the hospital where her father died and speaks to a nurse who tells her that “tidying of the body is her favourite part of the job.” She sees it as “a gift” that she can “give to the people who are left behind.” Seeing her deceased husband, Jennings’s mother is reminded of Lenin and their visit to his mausoleum in Moscow. Jennings relates the story of Lenin’s embalming and how viewing the body had been a “highlight of the trip” for her father. Travels with My Father becomes an embalming of sorts.

Jennings remembers how she taught a class at her father’s school after his retirement. A student of his asks her to tell them stories like her father used to. She refuses and gets nowhere with the teaching. When she comes home frustrated, her father reprimands her: “You should have told them a story. I always told them about my travels through other countries. At least that way they learnt something about life outside of their own. Most of them have very small lives, you know, and no promise of them getting bigger.”

Storytelling has that potential. “We are all guilty of … dismantling the past, trying to create something new, something we consider to be an improvement”, she writes. “Even in this book there are memories I have created from the rubble of others.” Jennings’s stories in Travels with My Father are not fuzzy holograms, but vivid art objects she conjures up in the reader’s mind.

Travels with My Father: An Autobiographical Novel

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 11 November 2016.

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