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I had the most peculiar reaction to reading this memoir by the very highly regarded Lloyd Jones. For the first five years of my life I lived 1.7kms in one direction from where the author was living out his childhood, and for the next 15 years I lived 1.7kms in the other direction. Our paths never crossed, (he is a few years older), but everything he writes about the place of Lower Hutt, and the sense of place is very strong in this book, had a startling ring of truth about it. From Stellin Street where I learnt to drive, to his days at the intermediate school, to the shop in the High St his school uniform was bought at, to his descriptions of Petone, the Hutt River bed, Eastbourne and the bays – I could see it all so clearly and in his retelling of his memory, he made me remember too. Just as wonderful was the quite amazing thought that just up the road a writer of such genius was slowly incubating!
Every family has its secrets, its stories that change over the years to accommodate new narrators and the mores of the time, its black sheep. Often full truths never come out because they are too painful, considered too shameful, or quite simply just too hard to deal with. Lloyd Jones’ parents, Joyce and Lew, were both extensively scarred by the circumstances of their childhoods, carrying their burdens into their marriage and the parenting of their five children, of whom Lloyd was the youngest by some ten years.
Lloyd grows up in a household of silence, where he and his siblings know very little about their parents’ early lives. All they really know is that there was a fair bit of sadness. There is a complete lack of family stories, no photos on the walls, what he calls ‘wilful forgetting’. Because he has nothing to compare this with, he grows up thinking nothing much about this lack, and is puzzled only momentarily when he goes driving, from time to time, with his mother to a house that they sit outside of for a while and then drive away again. His siblings are adults long before he is, and so he lives alone in the house with his parents, about whom he knows very little. One Christmas his older sister produces the results of her own research into their parents, a myriad mix of birth, death and marriage certificates which doesn’t really answer any questions and leads to a whole lot more.
The devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, was the catalyst Lloyd Jones needed to kick start his search for where he came from and what made him. Throughout the book, Jones uses Christchurch repairing itself and rebuilding its foundations as an analogy for him finding his own base and putting the pieces of his family puzzle into place. The narrative takes the reader from Christchurch to Lower Hutt, as far away as Wales, Wairarapa, the backblocks of North Canterbury, Wellington, backwards and forwards, to and fro, weaving and threading the story of a family through these places.
It is very moving to read such a personal account of a family’s story, or more to the point, the stories of Joyce and Lew. This memoir reads more as a tribute to the parents, and Lloyd himself finally seems to find out from whom he has inherited aspects of his own self and the influences that have shaped him. This is writing written with love and longing, and all the more poignant for that. The storyteller in the author comes shining through as he expands on the lives of the people he is writing about, as they react to the events taking place around them. There are some threads I just could not figure out the relevance of – the boxing bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett springs to mind. But boxing was a big thing in the house he grew up in. Maybe I was just too tired to fully comprehend the significance. Never mind, such a tiny criticism, it barely matters.
This is a book I will treasure, not just because of the eloquent writing, but because he has given honour and integrity to the lives of two people who were unable to really find it for themselves during their own lifetimes.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
A History of Silence
by Lloyd Jones
Published by Penguin Books NZ