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4.2 out of 5 stars13
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 5 August 2007
Maybe it takes a poet like Burnside to open up this tricky relationship. With a lying, violent drunk of a father, most men walk away, stay away or do the opposite, face up with the same rage then spend a life as a carbon copy. At one stage, knife in hand, Burnside comes close, even starting into the same drowing, LSD instead of booze. But it's not the relationship, it's the act of writing it, that impresses me - a towering kind of compassion that tries to get beyond the anger and self-loathing, to find a point of human contact, something of dignity, in what can't be shed. There are fathers like this everywhere, just tweak the profile to fit. But few sons would or could deconstruct the damage to make something admirable of it. This memoir is a monument to the humanity of men, to the unhardening of hearts. Everyone should read it, preferably before having a son.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 September 2009
John Burnside has written a remarkably courageous and deeply thoughtful book in this memoir of his father, who was abandoned as a baby and brought up in dire poverty in the lowlands of Scotland. Burnside is totally without sentimentality, yet his innate tenderness is never far from the surface, even though his relationship with his father was catastrophic.

Burnside's father was a drunkard, a liar and dissembler who ruled with threats and, later with violence. The lies came thick and fast - he lied about his origins, about his past life, and in the final analysis, about manhood - and it is a lie that so many men tell: that a man cannot own a true emotion; that he must not trust anyone; that he must be hard and unforgiving in order to survive. Why is this the story of so many unloving and unloved men? Burnside can't explain this, but what he does do is make it feel real.

As well as the story of his father, this book is also about Burnside's childhood, and what it led to as he grew up and left home. A dependency on psychotropic drugs and a life of drifting and falling - out of the world and into the imagination, and images and sensations are invoked to explain his own disaffections and self-damage. Sometimes the images are intensely beautiful and the writing seems to exist in its own time, beyond the limits of mere storytelling. Burnside is also a poet, and uses language to get behind events and beyond their mundanity to the core of sensations, feelings and events in order to say something profoundly universal about men and fatherhood. I found this brave book compelling reading.
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on 8 March 2009
I found this fascinating, but horribly fascinating. It's a story of a desperate family, the father haunted by his past, surrendering to drink in the present - the mother holding things together but at a terrible cost - the children growing up, suffering, but somehow emerging as functional "normal" people.

It's written in a very easy and accesible style which accentuates the darkness of the story
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on 5 June 2014
With all the care and precision of his poetry, Burnside's book gently draws you into a story of human frailty; it explores how people learn to live with disappointment, describing that often felt and desperate urge to escape or hide away from problems and difficulties, the pain of caring about the people we love and the guilt we feel when we don't.

It's a beautifully told story exploring universal themes, whilst giving his very personal account. I found it almost impossible to put down, despite the often bleak subject matter, and some of the passages or details in it made me smile in wry recognition.

For anyone who has experienced the anguish of a parent who drinks or the childish frustration of repeated disappointment at a parent's failings, this will ring true. It's not a cheery book but it's not wholly sad either. What it is, though, is a beautiful exploration of a difficult childhood and adolescence, told exceptionally well.
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on 27 February 2006
If you only ever read one memoir in your life, make sure it's this one. None of the usual self-indulgence, but plenty of evocative, beautiful recollection of the difficult and fractured relationship between a boy and his father. Thoroughly recommend it.
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on 2 December 2013
It took several pages for me to sink into this very detailed but very poetic style of writing. The book is intensely moving the deeper into it you get. I was in tears for much of the ending and chose to read some passages several times over. Like a painting where each time you look at it you see more and different things. I think I can use the phrase 'blown away' honestly here. The book stayed with me and I with it for many weeks after finishing it.
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on 4 September 2015
I was brought up in the same town as the author (Cowdenbeath) and lived just about 10 doors down the street. Although slightly older, I remember the neighbours and locations he writes about. Also the beliefs and behaviour of the times - the miners the pubs. His writing is personal, accurate and brought back lots of memories. This is my second copy as I gave my first to a friend who now lives in Australia.
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on 13 February 2010
as with all Burnsides, work,
a stronge lyrical narrative.
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Confession of a memoir junky: I read a LOT of memoirs. A good memoir, and they are legion, is a place one wants linger (with the odd harrowing exception, like John McGahern's superlative Memoir, where once is plenty). Surprisingly for a much-published poet and novelist, this one doesn't cut it. How did such a self-regarding work, so limply written, ever find such favour, renown even? The sympathy vote? The first sign of life arises, bizarrely, on pages 37-8 in the person of Smokey the Cat. The Dobermann has his moment too, which shows how desperate I got. (Pets R decidedly not us.)

Shorn of its portentous intro, which more or less admits this was written to excuse the author's own bad behaviour, this is a standard in-your-face, feel-my-pain, maudlin misery memoir (so you hated your father? mine smoked Kensitas, too - good God, man, so get over it!) alleviated only by the following stray felicities (I list them all): disliking his fellow Catholics more than the other lot 'made for difficulties'; anyone who did anything remotely interesting was considered abnormal (we're talking early sixties); for his mother to have seen him reading the Beano 'would have broken her heart'; 'the priest.. sat gazing at me mournfully, his mouth full of home-made Dundee cake'; 'mornings after were reserved for remorse and sweet tea, just as they were all over Scotland'; 'old priests working in their gardens, too close to God now to hear confession' - and that, my friends, is essentially that

This is an angry book. Anger is always tiresome and never tragic. Guilt's there too, of course, grudgingly acknowledged (like his father Burnside has a tendency to self-dramatise) but both males are pasteboard. So clichéd does the writing become that we increasingly fall back on movie references, and such life as Burnside provides is in the bit players. Even the 'poetic' writing rings false: the 'swift, furtive shadows [of birds] on the rosewater-thin curtains' (rosewater-thin?); 'in the heart of a man's heart.. [God help us there's more], in the smoky, golden, myrrh-scented chambers of his own imagery'. Well, quite. What was he on? Oh, he tells us - and the druggy bits, 'partying' (being out of it - or up oneself), are as surpassingly dull as they always are unless supported by another, non-verbal art, either musical or visual. By 'My mother was a maze of contradictions' the author presumably means 'mass'. (The unfamiliar locution merely distracts.)

I found peculiarly troubling the concern this brutalized wastrel affects to show for his 'ghost brother' Rick; but then he does prime us even before the epigraphs (before the lights go down) that this whole shebang is best treated as fiction. This is called having your cake and eating it; put another way, fiction would carry more conviction. The one 'truth' is that he is a liar, like his father! Can he bear to reread this? He writes better these days; his poetry is lauded and it was a piece in the New Statesman from a recent memoir (his mother again!) that caused me to persist with this sad piece of therapy. Rarely does reading a book leave such a feeling of distaste - and for all the wrong reasons. Frank McCourt, maybe? I've not read him. I see this 'multi-award winning' book actually won precisely two, a Scotland-only prize to which it was probably entitled in what may have been a thin year (though it's a shock when we finally get to hear his mother's Scots voice - on page 298!) and a Bavarian one. No doubt in German he comes across as a bit Thomas Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard with a drinking problem? Sheesh, I can see his difficulty - I just resent the time I gave this 'fanciful tale that could just as easily have been left untold'. Self-pity, who needs it? There's one more nice(ish) moment, about 'the ignominy of dying on a bus, with strangers gawping into your face, stealing your last breath and tainting it with grease and smoke' (that 'stealing' particularly good), but the whole is tainted by the very Catholicism it strives so vigorously to repudiate. Will Burnside go for the death-bed conversion, the renegade's redemption? Watch this space. Now, where's a cleansing draught of Eric Newby - or almost anyone - when you need him?
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VINE VOICEon 3 April 2006
For the most part this is an enjoyable read, boy can the author write? A true poet from humble and desolate origins who evokes his childhood so imaginatively. Read it and you find yourself comparing your own childhood and parental relationships. I felt the book was two chapters too long and did become a bit indulgent and tainted with self pity. This is a minor criticism though as self pity is as intoxicating as drug or alcohol addiction, which the author inevitably succumbs. There is no happy ending, but there is triumph. The power of the human spirit and this shines through from begining to end.
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