A History of Silence: A Memoir

ARTS, Books
img_historyofsilence1Lloyd Jones’s memoir is a bold disclosure of a family’s truths and a great insight into the author’s mind.

Lloyd Jones has a mercurial mind. Much like the shifting earth that shook him into writing his memoir, A History of Silence (Penguin, NZ$38), Jones’s ideas move unexpectedly as he recalls and responds to memory and the objects that stir it into truth. It’s a difficult plot to recall as such distance is covered in time and place. Writing from his shoe factory apartment in Wellington but thinking about the Christchurch earthquake and reliving and imagining his own as well as parents’ and grandparents’ early lives, Jones takes the reader on journey of connections, associations and secrets that can only ever be slightly uncovered.

Jones’s language is exceptional, though, and the way he ties together physical movement—“On 22 February there was a violent movement, like the snap of a shaken table cloth”—with the uncovering of family secrets—“The city’s past now lay revealed, and it was not as most had imagined”—justifies the earthquake as catalyst for a more personal story. I remember there being much discussion in my circle of writer friends back in February 2011 about who has permission to write about other people’s experiences. As Wellingtonians the Christchurch earthquake felt like a near miss or a warning of our own precarious living; as New Zealanders and indeed human beings, we felt deeply empathetic. Jones notes, “My anxieties prompted by the quake in Christchurch were old ones from another time and place. And as emotion swept the country between those who had first-hand experience of the event and those of us who might be described as witnesses, we found ourselves in an overlapping realm similar to the effect geologists describe as an echoing between soft and hard surfaces.” And it’s this figurative shake up of old anxieties that is the real force behind Lloyd Jones’s book. The title alludes to both the post-disaster sound of “concentrated effort to remember how things used to hold together” and the history of the Jones family keeping things to themselves. In this latter sense, Jones’s memoir is a mystery novel aiming to seek out the truth behind his mother’s mother’s disastrous marriage and the circumstances that left his father as a child abandoned in the house with siblings and a dead mother.

The memoir shuffles itself into place. Much like liquefaction (“The smell… is like something partially digested and thrown up”) the true mystery of Jones’s family rises to the surface, displaced, and the story of Maud—Lloyd’s maternal grandmother—ultimately holds the fractured pieces of history together. It’s compelling in the string of strident lies that the woman had to concoct to cover up the truth of a fatherless child and the abuse she and Lloyd’s mother suffered at the hands of new husband, Nash. But then… even that’s unclear. As Jones reimagines Maud’s life with the constantly outraged Nash, we see a serious of accounts of the relationship that don’t match up and the transcripts from court that, on reading, Jones “didn’t expect to feel the revulsion” that came over him. Although “infuriatingly inconclusive” the “tinder and flames that produced the long smouldering silence that hovered over my childhood are there.” That is, Jones comes to discover why his mother was the withdrawn woman she was having been witness to the horrendous violence and manipulation played out between both Maud and Nash.

The accounts of his own childhood, growing up in Lower Hutt, paint a picture of a wide-eyed boy who was “informed that I was found under a cabbage leaf.” Relationships between himself and his parents are beautifully described in the image of the young Lloyd “kneeling in the rich composted soil on the trail of myth, lifting up one fallen cabbage leaf, then another… to see if another kid happens to be lying there… I look up to check with dad. Through the thick smoke from the incinerator I catch the smile on his jokey bald head. Beyond his sunburnt shoulder, framed in the sitting-room window, is the watchful figure of my mother.”

Jones continues to follow the “trail of myth” digging through the rubble of his past, always in the present tense. He follows leads and flicks off course and away on often confounding digressions. In the literal debris of Christchurch city he finds a copy of Pliny’s letters and opens to a page where Pliny the Younger describes the death of his uncle after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. More history, more rubble. Jones records the line that fits so well with his own journey: “a letter is one thing, a history another, it is one thing to be writing to a friend, another to be writing to the public.” In this sense, A History of Silence is a bold disclosure of a family’s truths and a great insight into the author’s mind.