Reviewed by Terrie Ferman
Richard Glover will be familiar to readers of the weekend edition of The Sydney Morning Herald where he writes about any number of fairly ordinary issues. The tone of that column is light hearted and often insightful. He writes with similar insight in his memoir Flesh Wounds. In an otherwise engaging and satisfying book, my one quibble would be that, early in the book, Glover, on a few occasions, jokes about very unfunny matters and, even though this is at his own expense, it jars. Cruelties, conscious or not, just aren’t humorous. It was a relief, for me at least, that this inappropriate light heartedness does not persist beyond the early pages. What did persist was an even tone of optimism and positivity.
A child can be betrayed by parents through abuse, neglect or its vile cousin, indifference. Glover had a father ‘who was uninterested but also fairly friendly’ and a mother whose lies and pretensions made her weird, to say the least. She was also cold. How the writer turned out to be the man shown on these pages is a wonder. That both parents failed to be even basically accountable for their son’s welfare was horrendous. But the way Glover writes it, the irresponsible ‘parenting’ he endured somehow doesn’t come off as tragic. He’s one for the silver lining, the glass half-full. Given over for a couple of months to the care of his father’s mate, Steve, he forges a loving bond with a man who, unlike his father, took a genuine interest in him. A less happy outcome followed his mother’s suggestion that the teenage Richard stay with her old friend Lionel in London. To avoid a spoiler, let’s just say this was an extraordinarily distressing time in the author’s life and one that could have scarred him permanently. It didn’t. Ironically, it was the neglectful mother who rescued him from this situation.
One of the elements that makes Flesh Wounds such an engaging read is that Glover is short on blame. While exposing his parents’ appalling faults with uncompromising honesty, he never condemns. His purpose is to understand these strange people.
A big part of that understanding comes from a visit to the UK where meeting relatives and digging into old documents reveal dramatic secrets. Glover finally manages to make sense of the lies and misinformation that he had been told for so many years. With facts to work from, he is able to speculate about what drove his mother’s odd behaviour and so come to understand it at some level. It is a quest for understanding others that forms the heart of this book. ‘Not understanding what happened to you is a different way of giving power to whoever it was, whatever it was, that hurt you.’ In his search to understand his parents, Glover understands himself better.
His self-knowledge and self-acceptance are extremely attractive. He admits that he strides through the world confidently while at the same time suffering self-doubt when he receives criticism. He’s at ease with both these qualities and extols the role of confidence while acknowledging the benefit of self-doubt. One can hear the professional writer behind the wise observation that ‘fear and self-doubt are the angels of the second draft’.
His resilience is impressive. Though hurt, he manages not to be destroyed when he finds dismissive comments about himself in some of his mother’s letters. At the end of the day, Glover did more than survive a young life of neglect and indifference. He emerged from it flourishing. He attributes much of his happiness to his partner Debra and their two sons. Here is a man equipped to comment on good parenting, having experienced its opposite. Yet he is never preachy, never pontificating. A major insight is shared through the story of a family friend’s 70th birthday party. The birthday guest’s daughter made the briefest of speeches that reduced the room to tears: ‘If you knew the sort of childhood Dad had, but then what a wonderful father he was to us…’ In these few words, Glover saw the meaning of life: ‘to give out more good than you’d received…to pass on less shit than you’d suffered.’ This memoir has contributed to that.
There’s a sprinkling of photographs throughout the book. Viewed in the context of the story, some of these are achingly moving. The Papua New Guinea ones pay tribute to people who gave him love when his parents didn’t. And the final photo in the book (don’t peek) says it all.
This book is indeed, as the front cover says, ‘for anyone whose family was not what they ordered’. Perhaps it’s even more for those whose families were what they ordered, as a reminder to gratitude.
Terrie Ferman is a Brisbane writer
by Richard Glover
ISBN: 978 0 7333 3432 0