Book Review: My Father’s House by Bethany Dawson

Recommended to me by a friend from my school days who still lives in the province, this book is set in contemporary Northern Ireland but spends much of the story looking back. Having grown up in Belfast, many of the places mentioned were familiar. It did at times feel rather too spread out for the distances that those living in the rural communities depicted would have felt comfortable travelling. Although the six counties are small, the people lived insular lives and travelling further than a town or two away with any regularity would have been unusual. The way everyone knew everyone else and gossip was rife was picked up well though.

It took a while for me to synch with the cadence of the book. At first the language felt stilted, but it soon started to feel correct for the characters portrayed. The author captures the balance between expectation, duty, geographical closeness and the topics that remain guessed at yet unspoken within families with an accuracy that made me feel disturbed and uncomfortable. There is no doubt that this book affected me very personally.

The plot revolves around a family whose father is dying of cancer. Life in rural Ulster is described with an uncanny realism although I did feel there were a few flaws. The mother had left the father and somehow managed to finance a new home. How she did that was never explained. As a wife of twenty or so years she did not work outside of the family home and farm. To suddenly leave her husband would have been highly unusual; to be able to afford to do so in such a comfortable way struck me as unlikely.

None of the characters were particularly appealing. Their flaws were well portrayed but not their better qualities, which must have existed in some form for them to have got to where they were. The underlying tensions between siblings and the way children see their parents as always old were well described. I found the second half of the book easier to read as we were shown glimpses of the people the parents used to be and understood better why they had got together. As a parent myself I find it frustrating that my children cannot see me as an individual but only in relation to themselves.

I found the denouement satisfying. Given the picture that had been painted in the previous two hundred or so pages I felt that any other ending would have felt false. There is very little in this book that did not feel all too real. It is full of raw emotion with no glossing over weaknesses and flaws.

The book disturbed me, probably because so much of the tale felt too close to home for comfort. I consider a book that can get to me in this way to be powerful. For those who cannot relate to the intricacies of the time and place, it is a well written family saga. There are no great shocks or changes of direction, but the book is a page turner and a satisfying read.

I am left with a few questions that I would have liked to have had answered by the end of the book, such as why the father sold his land and where the money went. It was, however, a story about people and their tales were tidied to believable and generally satisfying conclusions. For me then it was not a comfortable read due to the thoughts and memories it provoked. I am glad though to have read it and would recommend it to others who enjoy this genre.

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