Adam Aitken, One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Books 2016)
Just a short post on this book: no disparagement intended, it’s just that the Sydney Writers’ Festival is here and if I don’t get this post done now there will be too much time between the reading and the blogging.
One Hundred Letters Home is Adam Aitken’s memoir of his parents and his own youth. It has been a long time in the making – earlier versions of two of its chapters were published in the late lamented Heat in 2004 and 2009. In it, Aitken goes in search of his parents. Not the actual parents,with both of whom he is still in contact in the course of the book, but the young people they once were. He explores letters and photographs from more than 50 years ago to gain some understanding of how these two people met, married, and separated. His father was a white Australian advertising man posted to Bangkok, who after enjoying the nightlife for some time fell in love with a university graduate from southern Thailand, and after some vicissitudes married her.
Their son knows more about these events than most of us do about our parents because the young advertising man wrote detailed letters home to his mother, including notes on his alcoholic excesses, the taxi dancers and other women he was drawn to, and then – all others falling by the wayside – his great love. Aitken makes wonderful use of this resource. There are also photos, which he squeezes for their narrative potential, and on his mother’s side some wonderful sketches of Thai culture.
The story continues: the couple leave Thailand to live in England, then come to live in Australia – first in Perth and then in Sydney. The source material tends to be sparser, especially for the English period, until the writer’s own memory comes into play. Along with his father’s time in Thailand, the most gripping part of the book is Aitken’s account of his own visit there in his early 20s, in search of his Thai identity – where he finds that questions of identity are a lot more subtle than that.
Launching this book at Gleebooks recently, Beth Yahp commented that whereas mostly these days we want to rush through things we read, this book forces us to slow down, dwell on moments, go back and reread or have another look. She’s right. My impression is that it was written as a group of more or less stand-alone essays, and the joining of those essays isn’t seamless. The occasional rough edges, however, mean that the reader is made aware of the work involved in making the book. It’s not an entertainment in the manner of Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!): you can feel the wrestling involved in getting these stories told.
I found myself itching to interrogate the received versions and silences about my own heritage. Thanks, Adam