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Book Review: Gonville by Peter Birkenhead

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Peter Birkenhead’s new memoir, Gonville reads not as a memoir, but as a story –- a story improbable, engaging, horrifying, and completely true. Birkenhead’s narrative voice lacks the jolts and plot hiccups that characterize most memoirs, the hiccups of someone fumbling through painful memories to stagger toward a truth. Gonville flows with such clarity that only two possibilities would seem to exist: either Birkenhead has deconstructed, sorted and analyzed the jagged pieces of his life so thoroughly that the edges now fit together seamlessly, or he has slid a sort of emotional sandpaper across the parts, smoothing away discomfort. Given the clear-eyed rendering of his story, I would guess at the former.

On its surface, Gonville recounts the surreal journey to adulthood under the shadow of an abusive, erratic father. At its core, it is the story of plunging into those shadows and discovering the same demons within oneself. “So I may be risking death by Columbus Circle to stay, but that would be better than being crushed under the wheels of what’s been heading my way for as long as I can remember.” In the Prologue, Birkenhead stands in his father’s apartment, hands dripping because the only towels hang over the cat box, as his father stands, clad in 20 year old red bikini briefs and pith helmet, doing an impression of Gonville, the Michael Caine character in the movie Zulu. Surrounded by his father’s collection of antique firearms, Birkenhead stays, “not because I’m brave, but because I’m scared. Scared of a lot of things, especially my father, and I don’t want to be scared anymore.” Despite his desperate need to be somewhere else, anywhere else as his father blurs the boundary between eccentricity and madness, Birkenhead realizes “if I leave here now I’ll only be back in an hour, at least in my mind. I’m here because I need to get away from this place.”

This paradox of truth – the uncomfortable truth that the mental landscape is far more real than the physical – pervades Gonville. “This was when I first wondered ‘Am I like him? Will I become my father?’ It was a fear so tightly wrapped in a double helix with the hope that I would be like him they might as well have been one thing.” The intelligent facility of Birkenhead’s writing shines in sentences like that one. The double image of fear bundled into the DNA shimmers across the more literal notion of a double helix as a constricting coil. Gonville is replete with that sort of sentence – readable, outwardly simple, and yet deeply layered.

Gonville begins with what Birkenhead had thought to be a dream, a dream of flying down the stairs as a three-year old. His mother later confirmed that this was no dream, but a memory. She had carried him and his younger brother as she fled down a twisting staircase from his gun-wielding father. Most memoirs are told in an adult voice, the adult author looking back on his or her life. Gonville is unique in that Birkenhead’s narrative voice ages with the progression of the memoir. Childhood scenes are told in the voice of a child. As the scenes progress into adolescence and adulthood, the voice deepens, grows angry, and finally reaches the maturity of acceptance.

The human mind produces extraordinary feats of rationalization, going to great lengths to convince us that our lives are normal. “Sleepovers were always dicey, like foreign travel without a phrasebook…As I watched my friends’ fathers make good-natured jokes about spilled glasses of soda or unfinished homework my mouth would start to open in preparation to laugh, and then I’d realize that they weren’t doing wacky send-ups of normal people, they were being normal people.” Lacking a stabilizing center, the young Peter tried on the personae of his friends’ families. “As far as I could tell we didn’t have a family personality – not just one, anyway…Each sibling was already in the habit of adopting the character traits of whomever we were standing closest to, trying on the tics and tastes and accents of every friend and acquaintance, performing all the same identity experiments other kids were, but without the control group.” Given the dominating, violent, and fragmented personality of his father, this is no surprise. “The inside of Dad’s head was a lot like Glen Cove, actually: old working-class resentments, aristocratic fantasies, and a new middle-class identity at odds with both…No race, address, profession, or hobby was exempt from his wrath.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of Gonville is the sideways look at Birkenhead’s mother. Both the challenges and terrors she confronts in the face of an abusive spouse and the development of her creative side as a writer and musician that leads to her eventual independence illuminate a woman of quiet strength and adaptability.

Gonville is a captivating journey through the humor, pitfalls, delusions, and dangers of extreme family dysfunction and the boundless capacity of human love.

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