Fathers and Sons is Howard Cunnell’s beautiful memoir about growing up, about love and masculinity, about fathers and sons. This short book really consists of two halves. One focusses on Cunnell as a young boy growing up in the south of England and suffering from the absence of his father, who left his mother before Cunnell was born. The author remembers a youth of self-destruction, of anxieties and heartbreak, but also a keen interest for the arts and literature. Violence is a constant companion in his life and his own aggressive tendencies, an anger he cannot control, often overwhelm him. As he moves to London, he drifts into alcoholism and from bedsit to bedsit until he finally falls for the beautiful and fascinating Araba, and stays with her through the birth of her – not his – daughter Jay. The pair go on to have another daughter together and – except for a time of separation – Cunnell grows to be a loving father and reliable husband.
The second part of the book finds a much more grounded Cunnell confronted with his Jay’s transition to become a boy. This half of the book is filled with pain and anger, scenes of self-harm and thoughts of suicide. But it is also a carefully and lovingly crafted account of Cunnell’s coming to terms with his son’s transition, and doing his best to be understanding and supportive. Some of these scenes are incredibly difficult to read, but the love that carries the family through painful years lets the reader carry on hopefully.
The atmosphere of the first part reminded me of Shuggie Bain (winner of the 2020 Booker Prize) – I could imagine Shuggie to grow into the young Howard Cunnell struggling in London. But the second part was something completely different. I can only describe this book as truly tender. You can feel how carefully Cunnell tries to get it right – to capture his son’s character and pain, to express his own flaws and the love he has for his family.
This book has some flaws. Some things could be explored more deeply, other parts could have been edited more strictly. Especially the ending left me slightly disappointed, not because it was written badly, but instead of an exploration into his hero Hemingway’s relationship to his own sons, I was hoping to hear more about Jay. While Cunnell has successfully adopted Hemingway’s advice on understated writing – his prose is often poetic in its simplicity – some of the discussions of his literary idols could have been cut down a bit.
Still, Fathers and Sons is a very touching memoir about masculinity and father-son relationships, and Cunnell is not scared to be honest and vulnerable.