8th September 2000 at 01:00
FATHER amp; I: A memoir. By Carlo Gebler. Little, Brown pound;16.99. We now know more than we ever wanted to about the miseries adults can wreak on children, so it comes as no surprise to learn that behind Carlo Gebler's suburban London front door his father inflicted on him a life of cold discipline and relentless bullying. Nor that, as Gebler later discovers, his father behaved this way because he himself had been damaged by a rejecting father.

So why would anyone want to read this account of a morbid childhood in Morden? One answer might be that Gebler, an Enniskillen-based novelist (The Cure and How to Murder a Man, plus children's fiction), is the son of the novelist Edna O'Brien, but anyone looking here to learn more about her life will be disappointed. She remains a shadowy figure, dispenser of sweets and television, in whose liberal home Carlo and his brother Sash ache to live, while being forced to pass their days in the grim hands of her former husband, Ernest Gebler. He was another writer, whose novel The Plymouth Adventure was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy, but who then fell into increasing obscurity while O'Brien's star rose.

It was jealousy about this, Gebler says, which fuelled his father's growing dislike of him, his mother's son, until Ernest finally washed his hands of both boys and returned to Ireland. Gebler writes convincingly of childhood - the smog in front of the porch light after school; the Teddy Boys in the park; the household smells of lanolin and anthracite and vegetable soup - and of his utter terror of his Stalin-loving father who shouted constant instructions, forbade ice cream, and called him "retarded" and "an imbecile".

Some of his set pieces are seat-squirmingly horrible in their evocation of the powerlessness of childhood. On one occasion, his father takes away his favourite toy, a helicopter, given to him by his mother - "You dont need it any more. It's cluttering up my study. You've had it long enough. So look at it one last time and say goodbye." On another, he is forced to chew the rubbery tubes of a sheep's heart while his father and girlfriend eat "pieces of dark beef with thin red juice oozing from the meat".

Then there are his memories of school: the wretchedness of taking, and failing, the 11-plus - "I heard the scuffing of our feet on the wooden floor and the tick of the electric clocks that hung on the walls. As it was 11-plus day, we were the only children there that morning" - then the "bliss" of being lifted from secondary modern school into a prep school with girls in boaters and an after-school chess club, and from there moving on to Bedales, the artsy Hampshire private school where a history teacher drummed into him the discipline of how to write essays and at a stroke, sent him on his way to York university and a life as a writer.

"How's the snob school?" asked his father, saying that he'd warned him that when his mother became bored with him she'd pack him off to boarding school.

Yet at the end of this book, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the emotionally stunted Ernest, who worked hard in his own way to care for his boys, only to see them seduced, as he saw it, into the hedonistic world of their mother. The book has a faint, but unsettling whiff of self-regard, and leaves the reader wondering why this monstrous father seemed merely "quirky" to Carlo's wife, when she finally met him?

Perhaps, in the end, its only real value, beyond the personal catharsis for which it was obviously written, is to remind us yet again what Margaret Atwood pinned down so brilliantly in her novel Cat's Eye - that children are entirely unreliable witnesses, sensing some truths but missing others, and as a result creating a reality that is all their own.


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