Review: David Carlin’s Our Father Who Wasn’t There

At the centre of this tender memoir is a missing person.  When David Carlin was an infant, his father Brian committed suicide.  Growing up, it wasn’t spoken of, leaving Carlin to reply when the subject arose: “Oh, he died.”

Years later, Carlin decides to reconstruct Brian’s life, both as a way of solving the mystery of his death and in the hope of resurrecting the father he never knew.  He scours military files, reads psychiatric documents, interviews family members, retraces each step leading to the terrible act.  Like holding water in one’s hands, it proves impossible.

One of the problems with memoirs as a genre is the pervasive conflation of an author’s truth from the objective truth.  Carlin’s story circumvents this issue.  Since the thoughts and feelings of his father can never be known, since all events are filtered through cryptic notes in dusty files or the hole-filled memories of others, what Carlin writes is automatically closer to fanciful imaginings.  He doesn’t pretend to be definitive, admitting outright, “Of course, it might not have happened this way at all.”

Even with this insight, one senses the little boy in Carlin looking for the reason his father took his life.  Carlin returns again and again to an event that might have occurred on a jetty in the South Pacific at the conclusion of the war—an event no one recalls.  Was that it?  Or was it something else that made Brian so unhappy?

Our Father Who Wasn’t There is less about the real man and more about Carlin’s deep longing for him.  Such a resurrection is a shell game, ever elusive, impossible to win, but a loving and beautifully written tribute nonetheless.


Our Father Who Wasn’t There, David Carlin, Scribe, $32.95.

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in February 2010.

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