Hannah Pool: My Fathers' Daughters
Reviewed by Roz Way
It was purely by accident that it took so long to write a review about this book, but by coincidence it has proved beneficial. On first reflections of ‘My Fathers’ Daughter’
I was left unsure as to what my views were. It is an autobiography, which covers a mere snapshot of time.
Yet within this short period of time, and in the concise number of pages, a considerable amount of personal, geographical and social issues are covered. As a result whilst this compact book throws many issues at you, to begin with I was under-whelmed by the way that these were conveyed.
Every chapter is filled with a new revelation, whether it be the discovery of another new family member or the ‘marvel of how much I’ve learnt in just a few days’. But in a book with its subject based upon revelations and self-discovery this is hardly surprising and so each new event or revelation is somewhat expected.
The style of writing is at a seemingly basic level – repetitive phrases, short sentences in a thought-like manner, simple descriptions and light dialogue – making for easy reading but causing a slight notion of tedium as you get further through the book.
Other elements also started to chafe, for example the constant repetition of ‘the voice inside my head saying…over and over’ and the slightly irritating randomness of paragraphs.
Perhaps most unsettling is the sense of detachment that Pool portrays.
Far from the constant flow of raw emotions, tears or sheer joy, grand family reunions or fallouts, the reader is instead given an account of bus rides, family meals where brothers happily translate and Pool describing her needs for solitude, her irritation with certain family members and her calm inability to eat the family goat that was slaughtered for her ‘home-coming’.
Initially I felt let down by this book. I never expected to understand the situation of an adopted woman finding her father and family, let alone across cultures and to another country, but I thought I’d at least be moved by it.
I also felt that the positioning of the apostrophe in the title almost unnecessary as references to the adoptive father and family were fleeting to the point of unimportant.
Was I expecting heartbreak, arguments, swathes of internal angst, family resolution, the joining of cultures and a happy ending?
Yes, I suppose I was. Was I naïve, simplistic in my understanding of the subject of adoption and the vast differences in cultures despite colour?
Having finished the book with these thoughts I was not in a hurry to write a review. Writing a scathing critique or a fantastic positive review may be thrilling, writing a mediocre, non-committal account is more tricky.
As the days and weeks went on however, ‘My Fathers’ Daughter’ played on my mind, and as I spoke to others about my feelings on the book, my attitude began to change.
The style of writing comes across as random and tedious, but matches perfectly with the stream of thoughts and feelings which are a necessity in the portrayal of emotions and the mixtures of apprehension, excitement and confusion that must be inherent in the situation.
The erratic nature of the paragraphs and chapters gives you a notion of what the author is experiencing, and the repetitive phrases provide an anchor for you to grasp onto in the myriad of over-whelming feelings and events.
The reader is not expected to understand the situation, but is given glimmers of comprehension when you attempt to relate a simple situation to your own life.
I never give a second thought to telling someone I am seeing my cousin as it is not a strange event, but for Pool it is something that was so new she did not know how to deal with it.
Her hesitancy in explaining the situation to others could be read as simply not knowing what to do, or perhaps she was attempting to find an easier route to begin the explanation of her situation to those who have no idea – maybe she doesn’t know either.
The lack of extreme emotion that is shown is instead dealt with in a much more delicate manner. Rather than a constant tirade of emotional situations, the truly emotional moments are dramatic in their simplicity.
Within the rather bland scenery and event descriptions the moment where her ‘real’ father delights in the first time of eating a meal that his son and daughter have prepared together surprises you with such ferocity that other passengers on the underground suddenly wonder what on earth has caused your blurred vision.
Equally, the realisation that the situated apostrophe symbolises the true meaning of a father who can whole-heartedly support his daughter in a heart-breaking journey for which all he can do is be silent and ‘there’.
I have not yet mentioned the subject of race and identity. Simply, I cannot comprehend it despite the gentleness with which Pool guides you into it.
The notion of not fitting in within your adoptive home or your ‘real’ home is distant enough, but to be considered too white when all your life you have been considered too black (I apologise for the simplicity – I do not have Pool’s skills or tact) is something else altogether.
The utter chasm between the lifestyles of England and Europe compared to that of the villages of Eritrea are so delicately, yet vividly described that I shall leave it for the reader to experience.
The ability to create a book that is thought-provoking once on the shelf is but one of Pool’s literary skills. One of her others is to provide us with the fact that regardless of ‘real’ or ‘adoptive’, race or culture, it is every fathers’ opinion that their daughter’s skirt length is always too short.
The reviewer is an academic and writer.