Inventory: A River, a City, a Family by Darran Anderson review – troubled lives brought to light

A Derry-born writer’s singular study of his home town and hidden family history is revelatory

“How might it be possible to construct a lost person?” asks Darran Anderson in the preface to Inventory, “ rebuild a human being from photographs, documents, the contradictory fragments they left behind.” The answer, as articulated in his hybrid book, part memoir, part social history, part family archaeology, is painstakingly, and with a relentless curiosity to interrogate the secrets, silences and stories that have accumulated over generations.

The first clue that Inventory is a radically different take on memoir is the chapter headings: Longwave Radio; Belt; Salt; Mixtape; but also: Handkerchief (bloodstained); Pills; Barometer (cracked at “Stormy”). Out of these familiar, occasionally intriguing objects, Anderson shows how the past haunts the present. In doing so, he also lays bare, with compelling self-scrutiny, his own protracted crisis of belonging. It is quite a journey.

It begins with his own childhood in Derry, a city traumatised by its recent past, before spiralling back in time to trace the outlines of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives in the city. A section entitled Da’s Folks begins tantalisingly: “Everyone knows where they were when Kennedy was shot. My grandfather was drowning.” There follows the first of many family revelations and one that casts a long dark shadow.

Drunk and confused, Joseph Anderson slipped and fell into the icy waters of the River Foyle on 22 November 1963, aged 39. Anderson’s only material trace of his paternal grandfather is a single photograph that carries a second revelation: it shows Joseph looking ”proud in a British army uniform”.

A photo is only a moment in time, though, and seldom an entirely truthful one. The real story, like most of the revealed truths in the book, comes to Anderson in fragments that he must stitch together. He learns that, having enlisted on impulse to fight in the second world war, Joseph found himself spectacularly unsuited to military life and became a persistent deserter. Unmoored from the familiar, he seems to have been doggedly determined to find his way back home. When he eventually did return to Derry, altered by his exile, his sullied reputation continued to define him. “Joseph,” writes Anderson, “came to haunt his own life.”

As the narrative shifts to the late 1960s and the onset of the Troubles, Anderson recounts how Joseph’s widow, known locally as “Needles” for her sharp tongue, held the family together as their house was raided continually by soldiers of the same army her husband had served in. In one instance, on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, one of her sons, who had been chosen to be best man, was taken in for questioning. Mockingly, the soldiers danced around her holding her daughter’s wedding dress.

“Needles lost her temper,” writes Anderson. “She pulled down the picture of her dead husband, in his British army uniform, and smashed it on the floor, saying she was ashamed of it now. One of the soldiers struck her in the face with his rifle butt.”

These kinds of transgressions will be familiar to anyone from a working-class, nationalist background who grew up during the Troubles and, although I am a generation older than Anderson, there were moments when I had to put down his book, so unsettlingly vivid were his descriptions of the casual acts of violence and petty humiliations that defined the time.

On his mother’s side, there is grief aplenty, too, her own mother having died young, leaving a family torn apart and a husband who fell into obsessive storytelling as a way of holding the world at bay. “What powers grief,” muses Anderson, “seems to be the proximity to before, so close but so unreachable.”

For Needles, that proximity never faded. Years after her husband’s death by drowning, she went into the river at the same spot. In a book that constantly surprises, the shock of her leave-taking lingers in the mind, its circumstance carrying all the dreadful inexorability of a Greek tragedy.

Darran Anderson: ‘embraces the hedonism of the city’s chemical-fuelled nightlife to a Rimbaudian degree’
Darran Anderson: ‘embraces the hedonism of the city’s chemical-fuelled nightlife to a Rimbaudian degree’. Photograph: Liz Seabrook

Water is a defining element throughout Inventory, the Foyle a literal and metaphorical undercurrent claiming the lives of several young men in the wave of suicides that followed in the wake of the Troubles. In the end, though, it is the shifting ground beneath his feet that almost undoes Anderson. Having left Derry for Belfast, he takes to walking the streets of the pre-ceasefire city in the dead of night at a time when a wrong turn could have cost him his life. Later, in the fragile peace that followed the peace agreement, he embraces the hedonism of the city’s chemical-fuelled nightlife to a Rimbaudian degree, deranging his senses to the point of obliteration while around him things – and lives – fall apart.

In his previous book, Imaginary Cities, Anderson used the writings of Calvino, Borges and the situationists to explore imagined metropolises, whether utopian or elaborately surreal. There is something almost hallucinatory, too, in the intensity of certain passages in Inventory that evoke his isolated wanderings through a claustrophobic city where, more than once, he is a target for casual violence from strangers. For a time, it feels like Anderson’s obsessive search for the bitter truths of his own lineage might end in utter disillusion, his self-destructive risk-taking precipitated by the shock of discovering one revelation too many: that his father had once served time in the Maze prison for possession of explosives and conspiracy to murder.

“My father, the former terrorist. It sat uneasily on my mind,” he writes. “I thought of it a lot on night walks though the city, trying to understand this new information, given that it ran so counter to the man I knew, or thought I’d known, my whole life”

In his youth, his father had witnessed the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry first-hand, having, the previous day, escaped death when a British army sniper shot and wounded two young men on the corner of Abbey Street. “My father was right there next to them,” writes Anderson. “He was 14 and was cornered too and thought, ‘This is it’, but it wasn’t. Not for him. Not yet.”

Politicised by the deaths of several young men he knew, his father had joined the IRA as a young teenager, despite being as temperamentally unsuited to the republican calling as his own father had been to military life. At some point, though, he had stepped back, taken stock, disengaged from the cause of violent republicanism and made a vow of silence with himself that his son finally encourages him to break. “It became clear to me what my father had given me,” writes Anderson towards the end of this remarkable book. “He had broken the cycle.”

Inventory is a book of hard-won truths, a detailed map of a journey out of the labyrinth, the maze of memories, anecdotes, evasions and secrets that families construct in an attempt to protect themselves and those who come after them. It is also, inevitably, but not exclusively, a book about the Troubles, a time when, to paraphrase Joan Didion, people told themselves stories in order to survive. After a time, those stories, endlessly repeated, became a form of myth-making or denial. Or both. The real stories – painful, exposing – were often shrouded in silence.

In often radical ways, this is a book about breaking that silence, transgressing what Seamus Heaney called “the tight gag of place” – but also of family. A book of revelations, then, both large and small, its truths reverberate in the imagination long after you finish reading it.

• Inventory: A River, A City, A Family by Darran Anderson is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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