Flesh Wounds, Richard Glover’s engrossing and extremely funny memoir about his dysfunctional family, comes with endorsements from two of the more famous dysfunctional-family memoirists: Jeanette Winterson and Augusten Burroughs. Burroughs says Glover has “made ordinary family life extraordinarily entertaining”.
But a portrait of “ordinary family life” it is not. The author’s mother insisted that she never once had sex with the author’s father, nor held the author when he was a baby.
Glover’s parents, both from humble beginnings in northern England, reinvented themselves in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – first in Papua New Guinea, later in Australia – as glamorous society figures. This is not so unusual, perhaps, but Glover’s mother was a wild fabulist, who told outrageous lies to her son. She concocted various grand and inconsistent family histories, changed her name three times, denied the existence of her siblings and cut off contact entirely from her family in England. She eventually ran off with an equally insufferable Anglophile to live in a Tolkien-themed love nest in Armidale, NSW, where they talked endlessly to stuffed replicas of Wind in the Willows characters. Both Glover’s parents were indifferent and neglectful, leaving the young Richard vulnerable to the attentions of predatory older men.
A byproduct of all this was that his parents bequeathed their son an abundance of bizarre anecdotes. Such riches afford Glover a wonderfully casual way with the most absurd situations. One chapter begins: “Occasionally, with close friends, I would tell the story of my mother and her enchanted nudist hobbit hole.” In the darker moments, he writes with candour and plain-speaking sincerity. Poignantly, he speaks not so much of his pain but of his numbness.
Mothers are always held to higher standards than fathers and this is certainly true here, with Glover reserving his harshest criticism for Alice/Bunty/Anna. To be fair, his mother was a figure of more mystery and comic potential than his garden-variety much-married drunk father. But the value of Flesh Wounds lies not just in Glover’s absorbing family story, but also in his sensitive reflections on topics ranging from modern parenting to the British class system. For a book that takes indifference as its starting point, Flesh Wounds is impressively warm and big-hearted. SR
ABC Books, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Richard Glover, Flesh Wounds". Subscribe here.