The father of this book’s subtitle (On Losing a Father) is – was – the poet Sebastian Barker. The tense in which he exists is unstable in Xanthi Barker’s complicatedly nuanced, absorbing and moving memoir. After suffering from lung cancer he died, at 68, of cardiac arrest on 31 January 2014, but for a while, after his death, she felt him to be alive. He was the son of the poet George Barker and the novelist Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept) and a fine lyrical poet himself. The love his daughter has for him – admiring, tender and sometimes unmanageably intense – is never in question but keeps company with other feelings: disappointment, resentment and pain.
All of which is understandable, given that Xanthi is the daughter of a man who “left when I was a baby” and was “easily bored and did not like to talk about what he called personal matters”. But the subtitle could as well be “on finding a father”. For the fascination of this book is in the attempt to understand a parent posthumously, to consider all the conversations that never happened as well as those that did. This is about making up for lost time – time lost for ever.
Sebastian is addressed throughout as “you”, which comes over as awkwardly direct (too late in the day) but suits the open, youthful and uncensored prose. In part, this is a cautionary tale about what happens when “you mistake writing for life”. The author boldly goes back to a time before she was born to describe the romance between her parents and her father’s purchase of land – a “pile of rocks” on a “mountainside of cacti” in the south-west Peloponnese. Sebastian Barker had no Greek and no building skills but plenty of blind faith. The locals took pity on him and helped him build the house that would become the subject of the book’s title. She then describes – with no mercy in the telling and a fierce empathy for her mother – the return to north London and her father’s eviction of his young family. He claimed he needed solitude to pursue his poetry and then took up with someone new.
The book is also a cautionary tale about alcohol. In a comically dire anecdote, she remembers her father inviting a random Greek taxi driver with his wife and daughter to dinner in Greece on the strength of the taxi driver’s admiration for the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis. There was never much decent food in her father’s house and it is the taxi driver’s daughter who ends up concocting a supper of tinned vegetables, feta and olives. As Sebastian gets more and more drunk, he disastrously misjudges the mood – but no spoilers here (spoiling being to the point). For every drunken scene, there is an undeservedly hangover-free morning after: “You’d get so drunk at night that you forgot we were there but in the morning – nothing. You’d be up before us in your clean clothes, singing along in your tuneless gravel voice to Maria Callas, drinking coffee and condensed milk from a tiny cup.”
There is another extraordinary account of a challenging trip to a “bothy” in Kent during the last weeks of her father’s life when he was reliant on morphine and not strong enough to “pretend your need for alcohol was anything to do with poetry”. The trip was supposed to be a 25th birthday present but the beige bungalow with hunting prints on its walls was a poorly chosen rental. She heads off on foot (a three-hour round trip) to buy her father single malt whisky. While there, he is appreciative of her (she desperately craves his approval) but is too ill to rise to the occasion. Eventually, their mini-break ends and they are collected by “your wife” (the phrase has an arm’s-length chill).
Will This House Last Forever? sounds, Barker confesses, like a child’s question. But she was 19 when she asked it of her father. For now, his house in Greece survives – she and her brother fill it and are making improvements. But this book, metaphorically, is an empty house in which home truths are being told.