A Lie About My Father by John Burnside - review by William Palmer

William Palmer

As Much As You Can Bear

A Lie About My Father


Jonathan Cape 324pp £12.99

Anyone seeking the sources of the extraordinary and dark imagination shown in John Burnside’s fiction and poetry should read this memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It is, above all, a portrait of his father and of the deeply wounded relationship between father and son.

The book starts starkly enough: ‘My father told lies all his life ...’. Burnside knows that fiction uses lies to tell the truth, and in real life, lies conceal truths too terrible to tell. There are two sayings that this book proves; one is Auden’s recipe for creating an artist, ‘Let each child have as much neurosis as the child can bear’, and the other is the proverbial ‘No man is a man until his father dies’. The history of literature written by men might be told in terms of trouble with fathers; from Shakespeare or Dickens, to Joyce or Anthony Burgess, men have written of weak or failed fathers who drank or deceived themselves to death.

Burnside’s father was a foundling who never knew his parents. The foundling is for ever at the mercy of whatever fantasy he dreams up for his parentage, and the tall stories Burnside’s father told for all of his life may have been an attempt to make up for the sense

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