“The only gift anybody really gives you – a version of the world, a version of yourself. A particular experience of life that is only possible between you.”
Will This House Last Forever, by Xanthi Barker, is a memoir of the relationship the author had with her late father, Sebastian Barker. He was a published poet, ‘not famous, but known to some people’. He bought a plot of land in Greece containing the rubble of a derelict house and rebuilt it. He married three times, fathering four children, although he wasn’t much of a father, at least to the younger two. He left the family he made with Xanthi’s mother when the author was just a few months old citing his need to have space to write.
Sebastian, the son of artistic bohemians, was the victim of a boarding school education. He was intense, overbearing and often drunk, disliking the demands of everyday family life. He was also entertaining with his many stories and anecdotes. He shared his interest in history and science with Xanthi, his youngest daughter. Despite her anger at his many casual cruelties, his neglect, she idolised him.
“you were magical to me. I couldn’t see your limitations.”
The memoir is raw in its honesty but also beautiful in the love it conveys. The author can now see the flaws and facades of the man with his grandiose delusions, striving for achievements that were never quite enough to become what mattered. She recognises that she too acted a part when with him.
“I spent my life trying to be someone else to make a man love me, I don’t know how to do it any other way.”
The book opens three years after Sebastian’s death. The author is trying to process how she feels, her grief and inability to accept that he has really gone forever. She then goes back to recall the tale of when her parents first met and how they got together. It is a love story that couldn’t survive Sebastian’s inability to cope with the presence of young children in his day to day plans. After he left, he would spend time with his son and daughter only when it suited him.
Sebastian died of cancer. Following his terminal diagnosis, Xanthi spent as much time as she could with him. She was hoping for an apology for his past behaviour towards her and her family, an acknowledgement that he was glad she existed despite things previously said. She struggled to imagine her life if he was not available to talk to about their shared interests.
“Even though he wasn’t there when I was little, he was a huge presence. He formed so many of my ideas about the world, my values.”
Chapters jump around in time describing: meetings with Sebastian, holidays spent together, the progression of his illness. After her father’s death it takes Xanthi years to fully accept what has happened. She finds herself talking constantly about him, something a steady stream of boyfriends were expected to accept. She came to realise she was pushing them away for fear of getting hurt again.
“How do you find a person who will really see you?
How can you tell if you are really seen?
How can you tell if you are really seeing them?”
Even with other family members the author could not freely be herself. They did not appear to grieve as she did, to value the detritus her father had left behind which she held on to as if still a part of him. Despite having seen his body after he died, she kept expecting him to reappear.
The story being told is of the author and the effect her father had on her life. It is more a memoir of her feelings and reactions – how his behaviour shaped her – than of him. What is being shared so viscerally is how she coped with losing a father who had for many years shunned the role and, in dying, took from her any chance of his becoming what she had for so long needed him to be. She adored her idea of him, what he was to her when together and apart.
A poignant and powerful reminder that every relationship is unique, a construct created that is rarely understood by others, even those involved. The author writes with compassion and insight while recognising both her and her father’s failings. A tale of the myriad forms of loss and grief, in life as well as death, that holds the reader in its spell.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.