After just over a week of fairly intense but ultimately satisfying creative writing, the word count on my NaNoWriMo story reached the half way mark late yesterday afternoon. To celebrate I gave myself the evening off. I have found that, when I am writing, the time just disappears. I am keeping up with the essential tasks needed to keep my little household ticking over but am managing little else.
What to do then with this time off that I granted myself? I chose to pick up a book that I received for my birthday several months ago and have been looking forward to reading. This turned out to be quite an intense and thought provoking experience in itself.
The book, ‘My Father’s House’ by Bethany Dawson, is set in Ireland, primarily the North, and revolves around a family whose son moved to Dublin and has not been in touch for over five years. It opens with his return to the family fold following news that his father is dying of cancer. I have so far read about half the book and have found the memories it evokes disturbing.
The author has managed to create a tale that captures Northern Ireland and family life in a way that I find uncomfortably too close to home. Just like the protagonist in the story, I escaped what I felt was a claustrophobic life and suffer guilt at having abandoned my perceived duty to my wider family. The part of the book that I have read so far suggests that unhappy memories are being suppressed; I cannot relate to that. If anything my guilt stems from the fact that I was loved so much yet felt suffocated by the expectations of those who cared for me.
Throughout my time in England I have come across other ladies around my age who were raised in Northern Ireland and still have large families living ‘back home’. They talk of missing the place, the closeness of the communities and the contact with the extended family members who were rarely far away. It was these aspects that I wished to escape. I felt smothered and unable to move without whatever I was doing being discussed and, too often, criticised. I longed for the freedom to do as I pleased without being held to account by those who loved me.
Northern Ireland folk are as friendly and welcoming as anyone could wish for. Families are close and supportive, yet much of what individuals personally feel or experience was never discussed when I lived there. There were so many things that were taboo, topics that were avoided, ignored or concealed. This book evokes these attitudes and I found reading about this familiar yet forgotten way of living difficult.
As ever I am aware that my antipathy towards such attitudes is at odds with the majority of those I know. I am the odd one out which I guess is why I wanted to leave so much. The book has opened up memories that have discomfited me.
Memory is a strange beast. Sometimes when I talk to my sister, who grew up in the same house as me and experienced the same people and way of life, I realise that we watched what was going on through different lenses. We did not talk freely of our issues back then, although when we get together now we can be more open. There were four of us living in that house and I sometimes feel that we barely knew each other.
There was love and there was support in abundance, but we each did our best to act out the role that was expected of us. We lived our personal lives in secret, and have generally continued to do so. Edited highlights are shared but so much of our daily thoughts and experiences remain unspoken and unknown.
The characters that the author has created in this book remind me of so many I knew. The guilt, the expectations, the resentments, the love. It is not a heavy or difficult book but, for me, it is raw.
Of course I cannot say if my experience is in any way typical, or even if any of my family members would feel as I do, but I am disturbed by this book because it opens up a box that I had not realised I prefer to keep closed. It uncovers my selfishness for leaving and returning only when I feel I must.
I have made a new life for myself and it feels far removed from the life I was raised to lead. The choices that I made were right for me but I must now live with the knowledge that, in doing so, I may have caused hurt. I was expected to marry and stay to raise my children close to what was considered my home. I feel guilty for escaping, guilty for not wishing to return. That is the price I paid for my freedom, but those who loved me also paid the price of loss and they were given no choice.
With half the book still to read I have yet to discover if there were other reasons for the protagonist in the story to break away. Perhaps my guilt is as much because my reasons were totally selfish. I needed to get out to preserve myself but this book has made me think about what my actions cost those I left behind.
As we do not talk about these things I will never know if my parents blamed me for leaving, if my guilt is even justified. I do know that, unlike many of those I speak to from similar backgrounds, I have never had any wish to return.