Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

Recently, I caught the tale end of a BBC Radio 4 serialisation of Alan Cumming’s book Not My Father’s Son and was intrigued. In it he talked about his abusive father and his search for his maternal grandfather, which was the subject of the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”. When I came across a copy of the audiobook, then, at my local library, it seemed like a good choice.

The book focuses on Alan’s relatioimagenship (or non relationship) with his father, who was abusive to him and his brother whilst they were growing up. As adults, they had little, if any, contact with their dad until he contacted Alan’s older brother and dropped a bombshell, a secret he’d been hiding for years, one that explained why he had been just so hard on Alan. Or at least that’s how it seems.

At the same time as the bombshell is being dropped Alan is discovering secrets about his maternal grandfather, an ex-army man who joined the Malaysian police force before dying in a shooting accident. Only now it’s not clear if it was an accident. But if not, how did he die? And why did he die so far away from home?

The book is written in a Then and Now style with tales of Alan Cumming’s childhood and later life alternating with the now of the secrets being revealed and the show being filmed. At times, I found this more than a bit confusing and – a downside of audiobooks – couldn’t flick back through the pages to reorientate myself. I also struggled with  the linking of the stories of Alan’s father and his maternal grandfather. 

Both of these stories are fascinating in and of themselves and both having endings I didn’t expect. The problem I had is that they didn’t fit together for me, even though Alan Cumming’s makes connections between the two stories and his own life throughout, comparing the shock he feels about his father’s revelations with his grandfather’s PTSD for example. The striking examples Cumming’s talks about just weren’t that striking to me, more a stretch.

Part of me wished these were two separate books, each more detailed because I think they could stand up in their own right. I also wished I had read rather than listened to the book because I found Alan Cumming’s voice too measured. Given how emotional he must have been, it just didn’t come across to me.  

A few months ago, I read (listened to) The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes, another book about family bombshells and, listening to Not My Father’s Son, I couldn’t help comparing the two. A. M. Homes definitely came out on top and made me appreciate how hard it probably is to write this type of book, one that is so personal and close to the bone, and write it well.  Of the two, it’s the one I think I’d recommend for people looking for a memoir. A shame but this one’s not for me.

Emma


4 comments
  1. Despite your reservations your review has made me want to read this one (it may be less confusing that way) I think you’re right in that when stories that are so personal the links aren’t as obvious to outsiders?

    1. I think it would be better read. Maybe would be more powerful or give me time to think about what was being said more.

  2. […] Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cummings – a memoir that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would, possibly because it was an audio book but also possibly because my expectations were too high […]

  3. […] so successful for me were Frog Music by Emma Donoghue and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, neither of which I really got away with.  Sometimes, I find I like a book more […]

Let me know what you're thinking...