David Carlin was six months old when his father, Brian, ‘went to sleep and never woke up’. His mother kept a photo of him on the bedside table, but otherwise, not much was spoken of his existence to David and his two older siblings, until they were much older.
Our Father Who Wasn’t There has Carlin sleuthing and imagining his way through the history and motivations of a man who chose to take his own life. What’s remarkable about this book is the compassion Carlin has for his father – a father, he acknowledges, who is constructed through the memories of others, medical records, his own (possibly genetic) dispositions and sometimes pure imagination. Carlin reconstructs scenes in his father’s life – his childhood, his time in the army, his work life, time in hospital, and his marriage. Carlin acknowledges when chapters are written the way he has chosen to see things – or he at least acknowledges the sources of these constructions, but these chapters are so gently, beautifully written that you do want to imagine Brian the same way he does.
As an example, towards the beginning, Carlin paints vividly Brian’s trip by train from West to East coasts – including him reading, drinking, mucking about, making a friend and getting sick. In the next section he writes: ‘It occurred to me that Brian might have taken a ship across the Great Australian Bight instead of a train to Melbourne – the records I had seen weren’t clear. If so, this would dissolve at a stroke the backdrops I had grown so fond of. I decided I couldn’t bear for him to go back now, and come another way. Train or ship; it was the journey that mattered.’
In other parts, Carlin analyses the angle of the story being told to him by another – such as when one of Brian’s brothers puts himself forward as the hero of a particular anecdote, and Carlin prefers to see his father as the hero. Much of what Brian went through Carlin imagines through his own experiences of life – like the personal moments that they may have shared as young men. In this way, Carlin in many ways also gives us insight into the life and mind of the author – the fatherless man – and how the loss (along with other circumstances of his own life) has led to who he is and has led to this particular search and this particular construction – a book and the character of Brian. The section where Carlin talks about his own ‘disputes with depression’, but acknowledges that he has never ‘been to where he [Brian] went,’ is a great example of the empathy present in this book. He says:
‘Do I sound harsh towards him? I would like to be his father, to look after him, to wrap him in my arms as my child. To teach him consolation. It was not as if he didn’t try; this much is clear. It seems he pushed all his adult life to extract himself but, like a bogged car spinning its wheels, only wound his way in deeper.’
You come away from this book with a melancholy acceptance that there will always be a degree of the unfathomable, in relation to the mind, in relation to suicide. Carlin is gently, compassionately curious – for his father, as a man, as a man he never knew but can imagine through his own moments of being dragged under, following the ‘tracks’ of obsessive thought.
The book is naturally sad and moving but never heavy. It confronts when Carlin goes into the medical treatments discussed for Brian, and speculations of things that happened to him, but is mostly only confronting in a slow, deeply honest way – like when something is shown to you that you already knew deep down but are then forced to stare at – to not turn away. I haven’t been so moved by a book for some time. I keep coming back to Brian in my thoughts. There’s a deep sense of acknowledgement for the unfathomable and the dark and the sad, and loss, in general; but along with this, the recognition of the capacity to love and be endlessly curious, open and embracing. A complex, moving, but strangely affirming sadness at the ending – for all endings.