This is a triptych of father, mother, son and ghosts of life. And his parents die in that order. Father, Bill, first, unexpectedly of a heart attack not long after retiring from banking. Then mother, Julie, unravelled by strokes until there was nothing left. This is where the story begins and ends, because it allows John, their only son to bind himself closer, and find out more about their earlier life. His life too comes under scrutiny, but it is also a meditation on truth and lies, and how we construct the characters we become and how they inhabit our own lives.
Lanchester suggests that ‘very few things in life are a revelation’, but his mother’s secret life, the longest and most compelling part of the book, must have come as a shock. He comes to the conclusion that if his mother ‘had not lied, I would never have been born’. In other words if it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t have made it up.
‘Julie Lanchester, who died on 6th August 1998, aged 77 years’ had shaved ten years off her age. Her father Bill when he got engaged and married her (she was already pregnant with son John) believed most of his life until his death at 57 that his wife Julie was ten years younger than she was. That when he married her, she was thirty-years old and not forty. Bill, as an only child, with knowledge of all that entailed, wanted to go on to have lots more little Lanchesters; something she also wanted. John, their only child, later found out his mother had suffered four miscarriages. But suffering was something Julie was practiced in.
Bill had no reason to disbelieve that his wife’s name Julie was also a lie. She was born Julia Gunnigan was born on 5th December 1920 in Lurgan, Ireland. Her father Pat was a subsistence farmer and her mother Molly (Mary) was the wife of a subsistence farmer with the family wed to the land. This was most graphically shown at the age of sixteen when Julia, a postulant nun, returned home from Sister of The Good Shepherd (made infamous by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters) to convalesce and decided not to go back or take her final vows. Her father and mother punished her by ignoring her and sending her to Coventry, but until an Uncle found her an escape route, she remained in the religious garb of the novitiate. Part of the reason for this was economical. She had by that time five other younger sisters. Four of whom also became nuns. And there was literally no money, but they could scrape enough to eat. But there seemed also to be something of the branding of the one that disgraced the family, the equivalent of Hester Pyrnne in The Scarlett Letter. And this experience John believed helped mark his mother for life. But perhaps more surprising is after a man she was engaged to in a sanatorium died of tuberculosis, which she also contracted whilst working there as a nurse, at the age of twenty-six, she joined another order of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in nearby Lurgan. She took the name Sister Eucharia and after taking holy orders was able to get herself sent to Madras in India, which she ran as head teacher of a Catholic school attended by the up-and-coming classes in that region.
John knew nothing of this part of his mother’s life, and was surprised to discover he had Catholic relations. But he comes to the conclusion: ‘some of the most important things that can happen to people can happen before they are born.’ This sounds decidedly to me like the importance of money and wealth and good connections – something Lanchester went to write extensively about for example How to Speak Money, and his recent television drama series on BBC 1 based on his book Capital. His father was a living example, a man who found his work boring and repetitive, but like many other ‘found it impossible to give up money’ and the need for financial security, ‘where money is concerned, [there’s] no such thing as enough’, something he’d learned from his own father. The boarding school John was sent to as a ten-year old, before taking a First at Oxford in English, was decidedly Anglo-Protestant. But Julia/Julie his mother had an almost preternatural way of hiding things she didn’t want to talk about or confront. ‘Julie wanted to be her own crypt’. And his father Bill, although an international banker, travelling the world, also didn’t like confrontation. In many ways they were made for each other.
Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Julia Gunnigan, or on her passport B.T.J Gunnigan before her marriage by applying for her younger sister Dilly’s birth certificate and getting an Irish passport issued in her new name. This is very John Le Carre, where I think I first read about this trick. But then after marriage B.T.J Gunnigan become B.T.J. Lanchester. Julia/Julie felt she had to cut all ties with her family in case this lie became revealed. But B.T.J. Lanchester’s ability to compartmentalise her life had other costs. As Count Pierre Bezukhov comes to conclude in War and Peace, in order to be happy we must have the ability to imagine happiness, John’s mother had the ability to imagine she was not there and her son noted this absence whilst she was present. ‘Ways in which as a child my mother wasn’t fully present’.
The psychic cost was something he became familiar with. After his mother and father’s death he suffered from panic attacks. But that’s too bland a description. ‘I couldn’t breathe, let alone see straight or think straight. I felt as if my mind broke. I wasn’t just going to die, I had disintegrated.’
The remaining death in the family was his mother Julie/Julia’s career as a writer. She had published a short story ‘Minding Mother Margaret’, about a young nun taking care of an older nun that is nearing death, which was broadcast by BBC radio, and the story is reproduced in her son’s book. But Julie/Julia had published it under the pseudonym Shivaun Cunnigham. But after marriage Julie covered her tracks so effectively that she never alluded to that time and never wrote again. Her son mourns that great loss. In the words of Virginia Woolf, she had the time and the space, a room of her own, but as keeper of a secret identity left no wiggle room. John Lanchaster, of course, was their reason for being and he has successfully picked up that baton. ‘Language is an intimate betrayal.’