Book Review: Will This House Last Forever?

will this house

“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.

“How quickly
A CV
Turns into
An obituary”

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.

Book Review: One Thing

“If she’d been his wife, he’d be a widower. But if your ex-wife dies, you’re left with nothing at all.”

One Thing, by Xanthi Barker, is a piercing exploration of grief. Its protagonist, Len, is fifty-eight years old when he receives a phone call informing him his ex-wife, Violet, is dead. Violet walked out on their marriage and daughter twenty years ago to set up home with her accountant, Ivan. Len has never stopped loving her, and also hating her for what she did to him. Instead of phoning his daughter, or driving straight home on hearing the news, he tries to finish the big job he has been working on for months that is almost complete. This does not go well. When he eventually leaves, in time for the funeral despite being told he would not be welcome there, he is facing the prospect of bankruptcy.

Len is struggling to cope with his memories of all the things he has lost: his wife, their daughter’s smile when she was a baby, his beloved green van, the life he once thought he would live. At the centre of it all is Violet, how she was when they first got together.

“Len didn’t know, had never imagined the sun would come out in his life like that. He had settled on overcast drizzle for the most part, women who thought he couldn’t think because he didn’t think to say every thought he had”

“She said she couldn’t live without him. She couldn’t sleep without him in her bed”

“She was the first person in his life that made him want to say things”

Violet left Len for Ivan when their daughter, Lila, was still just a toddler. Len has never stopped wanting the shared life she took from him. Now he has a plan, one he knows carries risk. He will reclaim from Ivan one thing that Violet left. To do so he must enter their home, which he does when everyone else is at the funeral. Being in the place she chose over him proves overwhelming.

This story is told in the form of a novelette – just over sixty pages – yet is powerful and complete. The reader is taken through Len’s life, understanding why Violet meant so much to him. The writing is taut and direct yet breathtakingly tender. The lens through which grief is viewed – with its impuissance and jealousies – is masterfully rendered.

A short yet evocative tale from a writer whose work I will now look out for. A rare find that I recommend you read.

One Thing is published by Open Pen.