“Eighty-eight years. It’s a long time to keep secrets.”
In Cass Moriarty’s second novel, Parting Words, Daniel Whittaker’s three children, Richard, Evonne and Kelly, are drawn together in a quest following their father’s funeral. Their father’s will contains a condition, that they must each deliver four letters over the coming year, otherwise the whole estate will be bequeathed to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
The first of these letters was handed to the family solicitor over 30 years ago when Daniel first started making peace with his life, with ensuing letters being added at random intervals. Most of the addressees are unknown to his adult children, but they track them down to hand over the letters and discover stories and perspectives of the man they thought they had known their whole lives.
Told from the three points of view of Richard, Evonne, and their much younger sister, Kelly, the three strands of their stories interweave, sometimes diverging, then criss-crossing more tightly as they reach the conclusion of their quest. Over the year, each considers their personal memories of their father and their family alongside the glimpses and insights they obtain of unknown aspects of their father’s personality and relationships. Their own burdens of guilt and shame shift in weight – sometimes heavier, carrying their father’s secrets, sometimes lighter as knowledge relieves them of secrets they’d carried for the wrong reason.
Writing the letters was Daniel’s way of redeeming himself for saying the things he should have said in life. But his letters also set his children free when aspects of their lives that they thought solid and certain about their own lives are flipped as with a sleight of hand.
Richard, Evonne and Kelly each had a different father in Daniel Whittaker. For Richard and Evonne, Daniel was a younger father, for Kelly a middle-aged one. I can relate. When I talk with my half-brother who is 20 years younger than me about ‘our father’ I struggle to name him as this. Partly because my brother and I have different names for him, but mostly, because my father with his approach to parenting would be a stranger to my brother.
Towards the end of Parting Words, Richard says about his father: “He wasn’t the man I thought he was. He wasn’t the father or the husband I thought I knew. He was a bloody stranger.”
Moriarty’s book makes us question how well we really know our parents, and how those we think we know the best, those we live with, may still be strangers to us because of the stories we create about each other – stories that may have little bearing on the ‘truth’. The consequences of long-past events continue to reverberate through our expectations and assumptions of our family.
Parting Words is an elegant and easy-to-read novel. Because of the episodic nature of the letters that must be delivered, I found I could dip in and out. But I wanted to read it in one go, as each piece of Daniel’s legacy to his children is revealed, building up a more three-dimensional picture of who he was and the events and people that shaped his life. Moriarty delivers twists when foreshadowed events do not create the picture I was expecting. At other times, I was right in my predictions, but by the time of the revelation I felt emotionally invested in the characters and discovered these aspects about themselves and their father through the character’s perspective. This is a story that made me weep on more than a few occasions.
This could be because Moriarty writes novels that show us how the course of our life is often determined in childhood, the theme of both this and her first novel, The Promise Seed. In her second novel, Daniel’s life is overshadowed by the burden of guilt he carries from a childhood event. As he ricochets along his life, intersecting with people’s lives randomly or more significantly, this burden accumulates.
We are often told that to release those things that weigh us down, gnaw away at us, and prevent us from moving forward, we should write letters to the people we have wronged or we feel have wronged us, then burn them. I would think by burning them, we do not have to confront the addressee’s potential reaction. It is a ‘safe’ form of confession.
Was Daniel a coward for waiting until after his death? Why confess at all? Why is it only a growing sense of mortality that makes people wait until the very ‘last moment’ to make amends?
Parting Words also made me think of more prosaic imperatives. I do not have a will, let alone a family solicitor. I’m now more focused my own mortality and the paperwork and logistics that it entails, as well as of the many lives I have lived. I have only lived half of Daniel’s years, but the sheer number of people whose lives have intersected with mine, who I might google in the middle of the night to see what has become of them, means that there are so many versions of who I am out there.
My children will be my inheritors, but they only know one of me, Kali the mother. My diaries have gone in floods, my photos on crashed laptop hard drives, and I am not much of a hoarder (except of books). I hate the thought that my children would have to learn of me through the people I leave behind who only hold a fragment of the overall picture.
I need to start writing these parts of my life down, not just so that my children understand who I was, but also so that I can try to see the shape of my life for myself. Am I carrying a childhood guilt that stops me from being the person I could be? Do people in my life know what they mean to me? Have I lived in a purposeful or a meandering way?
But ‘my story’ would still be subjective. Who really knows what a person’s life will be in the beginning at birth, or what that life was for, in the end at death? To put our lives in perspective, the opening and concluding chapters of Parting Words are told by an omniscient ‘death-like’ narrator.