Nine writers’ musings on family life. The premise of the anthology is potentially uninviting – are we in store for a mildly entertaining account of nine unfamiliar family trees? Fifty-seven charming pages later, we find the answer to be a firm no. We understand why from page one.
Catherine Coldstream’s piece on her father, artist William Coldstream, opens the collection with distinctive energy. There is no dull chronology here, but instead a playground for our senses, each smell and sight infused with the character of William Coldstream. The highlight of this piece is perhaps the descriptive exactitude which builds an environment from details as precise as “the sticky-sweet viscosity of linseed oil.” But there is also unarguable merit in the clear-eyed balance of Coldstream’s account of the artist, whom she knew both as acclaimed painter and as her loving father. She speaks, therefore, with unequivocal authority. The piece sits somewhere between memoir and biography, where Coldstream can channel the warmth of her memories into a thoughtful portrait of her father as an artist of his time.
The scope of the collection is impressively large and it is clear that these writers are imaginatively open-minded. Caroline Pearce looks back at 1930s London to tell us the story of a Dr Barnardo’s child, synthesising this tender real life tale with a documentation of post-war poverty. Meanwhile, Lyndsey Jenkins takes us to Ghana, exposing a kind of modern day witch-hunting practise. The prey? The “Spirit children,” infants whose families believe them to hold latent demonic qualities. Like Pearce, Jenkins places behind the narrative a commentary on the impact of inescapable poverty, making for a piece which is sad and chilling in equal measure.
Collectively, the works offer a tentative consideration on the nature of loss. Sometimes this is explicit; the foremost example being the penultimate contribution, Naomi Spicer’s ‘The Lie Behind the Beauty of Death.’ Spicer’s piece stands out, if initially only because of the way she establishes her argument prior to her narrative. “Have you ever seen someone die?” she begins, entering into a slightly confrontational polemic which feels more suited to stage than page. The shift, though, from this dramatic opening to the softly treaded story which follows makes for an utterly compelling piece of writing. She documents her memories of watching her father fade away, leaving her and her family distraught. The piece is a delicate evocation of the inevitable sequence of decline, underpinned by a heartfelt assertion of the unforgettable, haunting reality of death.
If you are thinking of completing the Biography and Creative non-fiction MA at UEA, read the anthology for an inspiring foresight into what you may achieve therein. If you work or study at UEA, read it to commend the talent of the nine writers graduating from the course this year. If you are either of the above or anybody else, read the anthology for a small but captivating education in familial love, loss, and essentially, family life.