Astral Travel, by Elizabeth Baines, tells the story of a family raised in fear of the patriarch’s violence and unpredictable behaviour. It opens with his grown daughters, Jo and Cathy, together in a hospital following their own health scares. This reminds Jo of an episode during childhood. She has been digging into their past, into her interpretation of the memories that scar her, for a novel she is putting together about her wider family. The book centres on her father, Patrick Jackson, dead for ten years when she started writing about him. His actions still cast a long shadow over Jo’s existence.
“Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe”
Told from Jo’s perspective, the memories still perplex her. Patrick was an abusive misogynist – a popular charmer to those outside the family but a terror within. He would spend money freely in his bids to impress others while his wife struggled to feed and clothe herself and their children. Patrick regularly accepted work away from the ever changing homes they lived in, appearing not to enjoy spending time with his offspring.
Patrick was born and raised in poverty, in a small village in Ireland that he left aged sixteen. He met his wife, Gwen, when stationed near her family home in Wales during the Second World War. Gwen knew only the bare bones of her husband’s history – he relished the power of keeping secrets from her. He took the money she saved or borrowed from her parents and squandered it. Gwen was beautiful, hard-working and intelligent but cowed by Patrick’s deliberately cruel and controlling nature.
Such a family story could make for difficult reading but the writing focuses on the mystery behind why Patrick acted as he did. It acknowledges that a child’s memories may be flawed or incomplete. While always afraid of her father, Jo still longed for his love and understanding – to know him better. In writing her novel she seeks answers to the conundrum of his behaviour.
Within the family, Jo has long been regarded as a troublemaker – her complaints and questions provoking Patrick. When she is beaten she screams and then cries – raising the risk that neighbours may hear. She learns never to talk of her father’s actions. When she leaves and marries, secrets shared cause further trouble, and not just for her.
Jo feels closer to her mother from whom she learns much of the family history through Gwen’s anecdotes and reminiscences. Nevertheless, when Jo complains of her father’s behavior, it is Gwen who implores her not to try to speak of it to him. Always Gwen would claim, ‘Your Daddy loves you really’. It was a refrain Jo and Cathy could not help but question.
Gwen is happy that Jo is writing about her father and answers her questions about their past, albeit glossing over salient details that Jo grows desperate to understand. It is only when Gwen realises how this is affecting her daughter that she relents and offers a more factual account of secrets long kept. History can be rewritten when perspectives change.
The final reveal section had a different feel, the writing style factual rather than emotive. It was strengthened by Cathy’s reaction to subsequent discussion and how to move on. Family members, it seems, often disagree on what may be openly acknowledged and shared – even amongst themselves.
The author is a skilled writer, structuring this story to draw the reader into Jo’s world before opening up to provide a wider point of view. Patrick remains both a horror and an enigma, a victim but one who punished with deliberate brutality those deserving his love. His treatment of his son and the impact this had was particularly disturbing.
The family history going back several generations remained fascinating – the exploration of inherited impact a particular interest. In this vein, I would have welcomed more on its effect on Jo’s children. This was the only thread I felt was not covered sufficiently.
A longer book than many I read but one that never felt drawn out with unnecessary detail. The device of a novel within a novel, of memoir presented as fiction, worked well. A study of family and the many cracks in shared memory. A lingering and recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.