Thursday 22 March 2018

Review: This Party's Got To Stop by Rupert Thomson

Granta, €22.45

Dermot Bolger

When Rupert Thomson's father was 21 and serving on destroyers (and later motor-torpedo boats) in the North Atlantic during the war he caught severe pneumonia which damaged his lungs and condemned him to a decade in hospital. It left the man with such a dread of hospitals that if one appeared on television he would switch channels.

Thomson grew up not only having to tip-toe around his father's illness (embracing him "was like hugging a basket of eggs"), but also -- as the eldest son -- with the weight of his father's unrealised dreams on his shoulders. His father expected him to claim an obscure title and make sufficient money to buy back family estates. Although obsessed with writing unpublished poetry and painting unsellable pictures, Thomson's father was baffled that his own son might have artistic leanings and would leave a secure job in advertising to live an impoverished, bohemian life in Berlin in his 20s.

However, if his father was the huge presence dominating Thomson's childhood, that childhood was also dominated by a huge absence. In contrast to his father, Thomson's mother was athletic and full of life when she suddenly dropped dead while playing tennis with friends when Thomson was very small. She left behind three young sons.

The house that Thomson grew up in had belonged to his mother's family and was left not to his father but to Thomson and his two young brothers. All were in their 20s when their father died unexpectedly. All became inheritors of the house, all found different ways to engage with the shock of losing their father and, in the days and weeks that followed his death, all returned to live together again in the house in which they would inherit equal shares.

Already an acclaimed novelist with such novels as Dreams of Leaving and Death of a Murderer, Rupert Thomson -- in this memoir, his first work of non-fiction -- has turned his gaze to that summer of discontent in Eighties England, when Arthur Scargill and the miners' unions were taking on Margaret Thatcher's government and when three very different young brothers were suddenly corralled into being a family again, finding themselves uneasily sharing a childhood space as adults.

The book title stems from the comment of a policeman who suddenly appears in their garden during a midnight bonfire that is accompanied by a drinking binge and blaring music and announces, "This party's got to stop." As Thomson tries to explain, it is not a party, it is a living family -- or at least the last gathering of a deeply fractured family, because after the house is sold (legally needing to be emptied of its contents first, hence the constant bonfires and smashing up of furniture) the three Thomson brothers will never meet up again.

Initially united "like a small army" by grief and by the immediacy of funeral arrangements, the brothers soon split into two camps, with Rupert and his middle brother Robin gelling to such an extent that not only do they go drinking and partying together, but they even share their father's old double bed. The youngest brother, Ralph, forms an independent republic in a locked bedroom with his partner Vivian -- a slightly ridiculous Yoko Ono-type figure of friction to the older brothers.

Ralph and Vivian keep a careful and growing distance, taking to carrying knives and speaking in code almost as if they shared the same thoughts. For the next 20 years Thomson will be estranged from his youngest brother until in the closing pages of this book he tracks him down to a new life as a merchant banker in Shanghai.

Thomson starts to see that summer of grief from the perspective of this young married couple with children who find themselves living with two wild older brothers who, to them, seem bound at the hip.

Thomson is incapable of writing a dull sentence and he brilliantly captures the contradictory nature of his father and how young men deal, or refuse to deal, with grief. His portrait of that summer is superb; although -- in his quest to try to recreate the death of his mother -- he sometimes casts his net too wide, bringing in too many side-stories of other relations and acquaintances with small walk-on parts.

But he vividly captures each world he moves through: be it Thatcher's divided Britain, the night-time streets of Shanghai, Berlin and New York during younger, impoverished, exploratory days or the unknown world of his mother before he was born.

Sunday Independent

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