The death of a parent has opened many masterpieces – Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet – and this, in its own modest way, is another one. Thomson’s haunting, elliptical book is a memoir that features misery, but it’s not a misery memoir: it’s a humanely funny, wryly anarchic glance at how the people we love affect our lives when they’re no longer there.
‘My mother spoke to me once after she was dead,’ relates the opening sentence, instantly evoking the state of unreality that grips the bereaved mind. Where many people fight against this, Thomson embraces it – it informs some of the best moments in the book, not least the point when he and his brother Robin binge on his father’s prescription pills after he dies, and the weatherman on the TV they’re watching becomes the dead man: ‘When Dad predicts a gale-force wind he grins self-consciously. In our family, the word “wind” was often used instead of “fart”, and Dad has just made the connection.’
In another writer’s hands this could be crass – in Thomson’s it’s achingly poignant. The issue of how we recapture those we have lost is central, and the stroke of genius is his realisation that it’s as important to deal with the estrangement of his still-living youngest brother, Ralph, as it is with the loss of either of his parents. ‘Immortal?’ he asks. ‘We’re about as immortal as dandelion flowers. One breath of wind, and we’re half gone.’ It’s intrinsic to the book’s richness that he proves this to be as humorous as it is painful.