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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 21 March 2017
What a wonderful and thoughtful work by John Lanchester. I was fascinated by the awful restrictions of life and family in Ireland before Vatican II and his great insights into human behaviour - as always.
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I do not usually read family sagas, but was drawn to this one as I was already a fan of John Lanchester's novels, particularly the wonderful Debt To Pleasure. I was not disappointed because this book is a wonderful read and draws the reader in to the labyrinthine history of his parents (and grandparent's) lives. Lanchester's task is made easier because his parents had interesting lives, his mother being a Catholic nun until the age of 38, and his father having been brought up former British colonies and taking up a career in international banking.

At least the first half of the book is taken up with the individual life-stories of his grandparents and parents, including a fascinating description of paternal grand-parents internment in Hong Kong during World War II. Perhaps the major part of this section is the story of his mother's childhood and youth, leading to her time in the convent - not a happy experience at any time as far as one can see. At least she managed to escape at the age of 38 and meet John Lanchester's father-to-be, to enjoy a reasonably happy and fulfilling marriage thereafter, if one based on a certain number of "secret's and lies" which Lanchester slowly uncovers during the second half of the book.

Needless to say, the book is thoroughly well-written and draws the reader along from page to page. I particularly like the many photographs which are dotted about among the text, somewhat in the style of W G Sebald's books. Personally I think this works better than having a separate glossy section of photographs in the middle of the book.

John Lanchester takes a charitable view of his parents' lives, even where there was cause for criticism. His forgiving approach makes this a pleasant book to read, despite some of the darker events which he has to describe. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it highly to anyone who has had enough of the glut of lightweight biographies to be seen on the supermarket shelves.
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on 7 February 2010
As a "Hong Kong Belonger" and a Gweilo who served in the same bank and at the same time as the author's father Bill, I was looking forward with great anticipation to reading John Lanchester's epic book on his family, and I was not to be disappointed. The early part of the book, which deals mainly with John's mother and her background, is cleverly constructed and it sets the scene for what is to follow. I was somewhat naturally more interested in the descriptions of Hong Kong, Calcutta and Hamburg and how the Bank's traditions there affected the family of one of its Foreign Staff officers, and not only did I find the narrative to be accurate but it also took me back in time and enabled me to relive many of my own experiances which are contained in another book "The Obedient Banker". John Lanchester has a unique style in the presentation of his text and I can strongly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the Far East.
Jeremy Tait
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on 4 January 2012
John Lanchester's description of his mother's life in particular is so grounded in the reality (rather than the caricature) of Irish rural life and the religious life from the 1920s -40s, that it is, in and of itself, an example of how biography can double as excellent social history. Julia Gunnigan was first a Good Shepherd postulant, then a 'daughter at home', then a nurse, then engaged, then a Presentation missionary nun, then a wife and mother. Belonging as I do to the fourth (maybe even the fifth) generation of my family to produce Presentation nuns, missionary and domestic, I fully appreciated her story as a religious and I am so glad that Lanchester went to the considerable trouble of understanding what was attractive (fulfilling work, personal authority, expertise, companionship) as well as unattractive (lack of personal freedom, having to submit to male authority) in the religious life. His understanding of the lives of medium-sized struggling-but-not-poor farming people in Mayo in the 1920s-40s is really good as well. He makes no generalizations and no claims to universality. This is a book to treasure.
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on 25 January 2013
An amazingly good read; takes you to poverty stricken 30s Ireland, colonial and post colonial British Empire, life in a convent ,the evils of Taliban like Irish Catholicism and the psychological trauma consequent on rearing children in the distant manner typical of the English upper middle classes. Great insight into the causes and results of the suppression of feelings and the destructive power of family secrets. Bears re- reading ,especially the section dealing with fears and phobias. Deserves wider recognition and readership.
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on 8 November 2012
This book has made an enormous impression on me, it describes events and an era in recent history that in themselves are fascinating without the extraordinary individuals at the centre of the story, I will have to re-read it again soon, but more slowly this time as I was too anxious to see what would happen next and want the opportunity to absorb any details I may have missed.
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on 21 March 2007
In the absence of siblings and peers, John Lanchester learnt to live in his own head. Reading has been his one great bond with his English culture. His observations have been made in an elegant millefeuille style of writing, with the references to what Conrad, Auden et al, wrote on the concept. Rubber necking my way through the ideas I emerged triumphant, but with a list of further reading. [A perfect introduction to literature.] His Mother's story is for me the most fascinating facet of his book. Like so many Irish families the Gunnigans were harnessed to the brutal yoke of repression. The Irish Catholic Church demanded obedience. Here as a child of a formidable Irish Mother he excavates her story. He is justifiably incredulous, as to real reasons his mother buried her true identity and borrowed another's. He sets about unpicking her life with the dedication of a conservator in the V&A's ancient costumes department. In terms of sheer empathy for, the reasons, the whys and the wherefores, he as good as dons the costume too. Rare, but real glimpses into the off-limits territory of a nun's world are provided. Yet he elegantly side-steps irony, the preferred partner for any personal, or potentially painful recollections. A voice that demands your attention.
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on 13 May 2014
This is a wonderful true story of a woman who spent many years as a nun, rising to a high rank in the order, then left and married. During her subsequent married life she carried a huge secret which effectively cut her off from her family in Ireland and even prevented her achieving her potential as a writer. The book is written by her son, the novelist John Lanchester, who writes with a depth of understanding and empathy for his troubled mother. My own enjoyment of the book was enhanced by the fact that she was born and reared in a corner of the parish I was born in and many place names and family names are familiar to me. I highly recommend this book particularly to people who like to examine what "makes people tick" and how early experience can lead to life changing decisions in later life.
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on 12 December 2009
I had not come across JL's books but found this one as an audiobook and immediately became engrossed in a moving story.I'd expected a lightweight love story but discovered an in-depth analysis of a family, told with poignant understanding and affection. Read beautifully, bu the author, in the understated tone of the actual biography, I learned more about the unnatural repression of the Convent life than I could ever have known from a more biased account.I look forward to reading other books by John Lanchester.
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on 3 December 2015
I cant understand why this book had good reviews, I read several non fiction books every week, but this has to be one of the most boring, the author writes it as an exercise to understanding his own mental health issues and yet the book is advertised as being about the extraordinary secrets his mother kept......actually they aren't extraordinary, same thing has happened in my family and as a family historian I can reveal it's far from unusual. However his mother's life was interesting, she became a nun and taught in India then left the convent and those chapters about her life are (almost) worth reading, but the latter part of the book is dreadful and dreary.
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