Sometimes It’s Easier to Talk About Books Than Say ‘I Love You’
Diane Shipley on Staying in Her Father's Good Books
I’m sitting at the desk in the corner of my bedroom when my phone buzzes and a text from my dad pops up: “Wouldn’t like the cold but don’t mind cleaning my bowl with a crust of bread.” I’m understandably confused, but then I realize what’s happening. He’s decided to re-read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich after I raved about it over email and he’s as absorbed as I was, 5,599 miles away.
I live in the north of England; he lives in northern Thailand. Before that, he spent over a decade in Perth, Australia. It’s 13 years since we shared a continent and we haven’t lived in the same house since my parents split up, 30 years ago. What’s long connected us (apart from love and familial obligation) is books.
Our reading histories couldn’t be more different. Growing up, I’d check out five books from the library and devour them in a weekend. I had a full bookcase in my room plus stacks of hand-me-down reads from older cousins. The only reading material my dad remembers seeing in his childhood home was an illustrated Robin Hood no one ever looked at. While I loved high school English classes where we read everything from Macbeth to Maya Angelou, he finished just one book before leaving school at 15, The Day of the Triffids. (He liked it, but not enough to repeat the experience.)
Six years later, he married my mum and they immigrated to South Africa for his job as a maintenance fitter. The country had no television or affordable long-distance telephone service in the early-to-mid 1970s, and my mum dealt with her homesickness by lying on the couch, sipping tea and working her way through Agatha Christie mysteries. Finally, under the influence of his wife’s constant reading, my dad decided to give books another try and picked up a cheap paperback of an Alistair MacLean thriller, When Eight Bells Toll. If you haven’t read it, the story opens with a detailed description of a Peacemaker Colt, an especially brutal gun with a “large and unjacketed lead bullet” that “mushrooms on impact.” The reason the narrator is telling us this, he informs us, is that he currently has a Peacemaker Colt “pointed directly at my right thigh.”
That was it—the moment my dad fell in love with books. When he saw how they could suck you in, make you care, and keep you up all night desperate to know what’s going to happen next. After that, he read every MacLean he could find and built up his own library, which included everything from The Godfather to J.D. Salinger’s short stories.
In the 1980s, back in the UK, he worked his way up to management at a fiber optics company and went to the pub every week with Bill, our taciturn neighbor who secretly lived for literature and gave him lists of authors to try: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Zola, Dostoyevsky.
Meanwhile, I was obsessed with two classic English children’s authors, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton (I wouldn’t learn of their racism until adulthood). As a teenager, I graduated to Sweet Dreams, Sweet Valley High, and Cheerleaders: series about confident, clear-skinned Americans, whose qualities I hoped and failed to absorb.
After my parents split up and my dad remarried, he and I went out more, just the two of us—to cafes, to soccer matches, and to bookshops. He usually offered to buy me something, and under self-imposed pressure to make a “literary” choice, I made some missteps (Rabbit, Run was not the best fit for 14-year old me). Eventually, though, I figured out which authors I liked, and some of them (Nick Hornby, Kate Atkinson) overlapped with my dad’s tastes, too. We started to exchange books, and to talk about them.
It was so much easier than talking about other topics, like what was going on in our lives. When I got my first boyfriend, I was too embarrassed to tell him, and when he got another divorce, he left it until the last minute to let me know. When I dropped out of college at the start of my second year, I didn’t know how to break that news either, so left it to my mum.“When someone you love is in another country, you don’t know what their day-to-day life is like, and you don’t feel like part of their world.”
I’d had mono the previous year, but thought I’d recovered. Suddenly, though, the swollen glands, exhaustion and lack of stamina came back, worse than ever. Just getting dressed in the morning wiped me out. I moved home, dropped out of college and was diagnosed with ME/CFS, a disabling neurological illness with no cure. My dad visited me every other day and patted my hand while I cried.
Over the next few years, he spent a lot of time and money taking me to specialists who tried to make me well. At first, we were both hopeful, but later he seemed angry, demanding to know if there was any point in my trying yet another treatment. One day, in the car home from an appointment, I asked if he was mad at me, if he thought I’d brought this on myself. He gripped the steering wheel and shook his head no. “I just wish I could punch this stupid illness, that’s all.”
I didn’t recover, but I did stabilize a little and within a year, we developed a routine of going for lunch at least once a month, followed by a shopping spree at a second-hand bookshop that sold contemporary fiction for £1 and classics for 50p. I discovered many of my favorite writers there, from Pam Houston to Lorrie Moore. Occasionally, we went to local literary events: a lecture on Beat poets; a celebration of working class fiction; a Q&A with Alan Sillitoe where my dad told the author, “My daughter’s a writer too.”
I hadn’t had anything published at that point, but I was trying. Soon after, I struggled my way off disability benefits and got a gig as co-editor of a site dedicated to what we then called “chick lit,” which meant I was sent hundreds of books to review, many of which I loved as much as I had those YA romances a decade earlier.
My dad, however, had less time for books than before. Now in his mid-fifties, he was laid off, and moved to Western Australia to kickstart his career. He landed a good job as a manufacturing director but had a killer commute, so he saved most of his reading for annual vacations, where he’d pack his idea of escapist reads: We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Les Miserables.
By 2008, I felt well enough to visit him, and assumed I’d be reunited with the same fun bookshop-browsing dad I’d last seen three years before. I wasn’t. My first afternoon there, he told me I needed “a regimen, something to get you back on track.” He wasn’t impressed that I was making a living despite my chronic health condition. All he could see was that I walked more slowly and had gained weight.
We sat opposite each other in the dining room as he drew on the table with his fingers, pressing into the dark wood for emphasis as he explained that when you have a goal, you have to make a chart, fill it with milestones, and gradually check them off.
He was vegetarian now, had swapped coffee for green tea, and went to bed at 8 pm. I stayed up too late, consumed too much sugar, and drank too much Diet Coke. The more he shouted at me to change my bad habits, the more I turned to them for comfort. I forgot that, like before, his anger was born out of frustration at not being able to make me well, and so I screamed back until I was hoarse, telling him I hated my body, too.
Things weren’t much better the next couple of times we saw each other, when he visited England in 2010 and 2014. I found him overly critical; he found me oversensitive. We still had some friendly chats over Skype, especially when I got him talking about one of his areas of expertise (famous drummers, soccer managers, spreadsheets). But never really having argued, we now made up for lost time, butting heads about everything from whether Brexit will ruin the UK to if I’m just too stubborn to lose weight. (Yes and I don’t want to talk about this anymore, respectively.)
He asked if we could go from talking every week to every other week, which made it even harder to stay on the same page. When someone you love is in another country, you don’t know what their day-to-day life is like, and you don’t feel like part of their world. That was especially true when my dad remarried again without me and gained two step-daughters I’ve never met.
Thankfully though, just over a year ago, he and his wife retired to Thailand, and we’ve had a reliable source of conversation ever since. Without a job and living in a country where an electrical storm can knock out the power for days, my dad has more time to read than ever before. I’ve only finished 11 books this year, but he’s read 22 so far, each one logged on Excel and LibraryThing.com. We briefly attempted a father-daughter book club, but I chose such a dud neither of us was keen to finish it, let alone discuss it. Now we take pleasure in recommending books and authors to each other without obligation.
We still find topics to argue about. I think we all need to read a diverse range of perspectives; he says I should leave him to his Auster, Franzen, and Roth. I did manage to introduce him to Carol Shields and Lucia Berlin, though, and he listened when I raved about the brilliance of The Hate U Give.
To some extent, of course, chatting about books is a cop-out. It means my dad isn’t asking about my illness or work prospects and being disappointed by the answer, and I’m not focused on how much more easily he can see his step-daughters than me or what he thinks of my weight or how I look. I miss the days when our rapport wasn’t tempered by disappointment, when we both thought I had a healthier future ahead. I wish we could still go to author events and that the second-hand shop we used to visit hadn’t shut down. But I’m grateful that despite the distance between us, books have given us a shared language; an ongoing conversation.
At my desk, I study his message for a few seconds, remember another reference from Ivan Denisovich, and type back, “Don’t forget to sew your spare bread into your mattress.” It’s a strange way to say, “I love you, I’m sorry for the times we’ve misunderstood each other, and I wish I could have been the daughter you wanted” but it’s the best one I have.