Hugh Bawn was a modern hero, a dreamer, a Socialist, a man of the people who revolutionized Scotland’s residential development after World War II. Now he lies dying on the eighteenth floor of one of the flats he built, flats that are being demolished along with the idealism he inherited from his mother. Hugh’s final months are plagued by memory and loss, by bitter feelings about his family and the country that could not live up to the housing constructed for it. His grandson, Jamie, comes home to watch over his dying mentor and sees in the man and in the land that bred him his own fears. He tells the story of his family-a tale of pride and delusion, of nationality and strong drink, of Catholic faith and the end of the old Left. It is a tale of dark hearts and modern houses, of three men in search of Utopia. Andrew O’Hagan’s story is a poignant and powerful reclamation of the past and a clear-sighted look at our relationship with personal and public history. Our Fathers announces the arrival of a major writer.
In literature, at least, most family sagas conform to a fairly simple pattern: rise and fall. Seldom, however, does this narrative arc take so concrete a shape as it does in Our Fathers. The hero of Andrew O’Hagan’s first novel has spent the postwar era preaching the virtues of modern housing: “Most of the high-rises on the west coast of Scotland were made, or inspired, out of Hugh Bawn’s zeal, and his tireless days as a housing boss. A priest of steel decking and concrete was Hugh.” Yet the novel is narrated by this master builder’s grandson, Jamie, who happens to make his living as an urban demolition expert. More than once he’s helped to tear down the very edifices his grandfather erected—setting off both literal and Oedipal explosions in the process.
Now, however, Hugh is on his deathbed, and Jamie has returned to Ayrshire to make peace with the old man. Not surprisingly, he also finds himself reckoning with the shadow of his father—a brutal drunk who managed to alienate three generations of the family in one go. As its title suggests, O’Hagan’s novel is primarily a meditation on paternity, which in Scotland, anyway, seems to amount to the kiss of death:
In my father’s anger there was something of the nation. Everything torn from the ground; his mind like a rotten field…. Our fathers were made for grief. They were broken-backed. They were sick at heart, weak in the bones. All they wanted was the peace of defeat. They couldn’t live in this world. They couldn’t stand who they were.
To his credit, Jamie can hardly stand who he is, either: he senses that grief and weakness aren’t merely national conditions but human ones. And as Andrew O’Hagan’s mouthpiece, he attains some splendid rhetorical heights. Yet his voice gets muffled, and sometimes silenced entirely, by the author’s multigenerational ambitions. There are too many Bawns in this novel, too many tales, and too many miserable transactions between father and son. O’Hagan’s prose is perhaps worth the price of admission. Yet Our Fathers, like the Scots communities that Jamie so explosively reshapes, is itself a victim of excessive sprawl. —James Marcus