Picks and Pans Review: And When Did You Last See Your Father?
British physician Arthur Morrison was an irritating and sometimes embarrassing father. Though the Yorkshireman was regarded by neighbors as an upstanding citizen, his unimpressed son Blake—the author of this heartfelt memoir—thought him an impatient and petty chance-taker, fond of "the queue-jump, the backhander, the deal under the table. Parking where you shouldn't, drinking after hours, accepting the poached pheasant and the goods off the back of the lorry." Resisting his father's intense pressure to pursue a medical career, Blake instead reads literature in college largely "to escape him, to enter a world outside his control."
And so it goes until late 1991, when Arthur—at 75 still nosing into his son's life—begins complaining about an upset "tummy." Doctors soon identify it as inoperable stomach cancer; he will die before Christmas.
In this anguished work, Morrison, a poet and staff writer for the British Independent newspaper, remembers Arthur's full life and bitterly details his swift decline. "I keep trying to find the last moment when he was still unmistakably there, in the fullness of his being, him."
This is a furiously honest book—we learn that Dad's past may have also included an extramarital affair. After Arthur's passing, Blake struggles to hold on to the physical evidence of his life force—feeling the warmth ebb away from his forehead, resolutely watching as his body disappears behind the plain cover of a pine coffin, even dipping a hand in his father's ashes to taste the "smoky nothingness on my tongue.".
In these searing moments, the author captures the grief and unanticipated sense of bewilderment felt after a parent's death. "I thought that to see my father dying might remove my fear of death, and so it did," he concludes. "I hadn't reckoned on its making death seem preferable to life." Morrison has produced a book both elegant and elegiac; only lack of exposure can keep this fine work from being regarded as a classic. (Picador, $21.00)