At 20 Stone Street, little was known about anything except spot welding, knitting, rugby and the right time to plant cabbages and put in the tomatoes. The residue of family lore is light. Some of it sticks. But it is like learning an isolated fact, such as Moscow being the capital of Russia. One grandfather was from Pembroke Dock. Mum’s real father was a farmer, but we never heard his name spoken. Dad’s mother died of hydatids. Mum’s mother, Maud, “the dreadful old bag” – I have absorbed that much – made a choice between her man, sometimes described as a leather merchant and a gardener, and her four-year-old daughter and gave Mum away. Some of it is hearsay, barely information, but then a wave washes along the beach removing all trace of the footprints that I have been trying to wriggle my toes into.
At school when asked where I am from, I reply with the name of my street and the number on the letterbox. The teacher smiles. She adores me to pieces. I am so clever. Then I hear someone snigger, and I realise I have given the wrong answer.
Something else was meant by the question. But thanks to Maud and the mysterious farmer and the drowned-at-sea man from Pembroke Dock and the one who died of hydatids, I have arrived into a potholed world.
When he visits the New Zealand city of Christchurch after the massive earthquake of February 2011, Lloyd Jones observes the way the ruined Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was being carefully dismantled stone by stone, each piece numbered and laid aside for a time when it might be pieced together again.
He wonders if he might use this very method in a task he sets himself: to recreate his family history out of small clues and large silences.
Like the fault lines that open up in the landscape after the cataclysm of an earthquake, Jones follows the lines that open up for him when he traces the information he does know back to that which is hidden. In doing so, he must rethink all the stories he has been told and all the assumptions he has made about the home he grew up in and the people who lived there.
Why did his mother behave the way she did, ostensibly preoccupied with the woman who had rejected her?
What did it really mean to be descended from a Welsh naval captain, a man who had nobly drowned at sea? And what would the court records reveal about a divorce between his grandmother and her husband, a story long concluded in its dusty pages?
Jones tends towards the imaginative in his work – he is not a natural memoirist, being at heart quite shy. As he says, the family trait was silence: “I have no idea of the country that sat inside my father. There were so few despatches he shared.”
But the story he has to tell reveals the way we all think about the self, what makes us who we are, how history acts on and through us and how it compels us to behave.
This is much more than a family history or a simple memoir, though. Jones observes the landscapes of his childhood so closely that he is able to find new directions in his writing. This is a memoir that is complex and questing, with the novelist’s imagination and use of language.
How do those whose families are not notable or who have not written down their own reflections or histories go about finding out what happened in the generations before they were born?
Can we ever really understand the stories of the people who went before us?
Does knowing their stories mean that we can understand our own lives and inclinations any better?
How many of the things that we think we know about our families and ourselves are products of misunderstandings, misinformation or even deliberate blurrings of the truth?
Does travelling to the places of family origins tell us what life was really like for our descendents? Can we belong to places far away from the homes we live in day to day?
A Wellington-based New Zealander, Lloyd Jones is the author of Mister Pip, the novel that won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2008 Kiriyama Prize Fiction Category, the 2008 Montana Award for Readers Choice, the Montana Fiction Award and the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and has been made into a major feature film. His other books include Hand Me Down World, The Book of Fame – which won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and the Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize – Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance and Biografi. He has also published a collection of short stories, The Man in the Shed.