Other People's Countries by Patrick McGuinnessMonday 12 May 2014
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
If the memoir of childhood holidays spent in a particular house is to work, the reader must feel welcomed in and made familiar with its rooms, its foot-falls, its echoes and ghosts, the memory of its busyness and bustle, the generations who lived there.
The charm of McGuinness’s 177-page memoir, Other People’s Countries: A Journey Into Memory is that you are very quickly in there. You want to hear more and more about the small Belgian town of Bouillon, which is where his late mother’s family come from, near the French border.
Eccentric characters abound, like the garage-owner Robert Hainaux who unashamedly displayed a collection of rusty cars in his yard. It would be an art installation nowadays, McGuinness quips, adding that the proprietor also ran a bar-café in the garage. No surprise that, as drinking and driving was taken for granted in the Bouillon of the 1970s/80s.
However, the book is not by any means a wacky collection of off-beat characters, and the sinister legacy of Nazi collaboration lingers. Unrelated to the latter, there are memories of aunt Collette who committed suicide, and of the murder of the author's great-grandfather.
McGuinness, who was born in 1968, is a lecturer in French literature at Oxford and he is also a poet. He has Irish roots on his late father’s side and while we do get some of his paternal background - emigration to Wallsend – there is no fund of Irish anecdote.
Yet many readers will recognise traits and tropes that would have also applied in this country three decades ago. Patrick’s grandfather Eugène was fond of alcohol and company, which meant he had to be frequently summoned home by the author as a young boy from the bar cafés of the town. There is a wonderful description of how Eugène would remove himself with an elaborate turning motion from his seat. Similarly, his grandmother Lucie’s piety - the rosary beads and the Lourdes water - will strike a chord.
Principally, however, it is the writer's almost magical routes into the past, and his keen awareness of memory's curious tricks which keep the reader interested. He brings his poet's sensibility and he also brings the excellent poems, some of which are included in the book. The author’s black-and -white photographs amplify this affectionate portrait of his salad days, and the whole project is oddly comforting.