When Will Boast shows a writer friend a fictionalised version of his family history she tells him ‘If you put all that in, no one will believe it’. Perhaps she might have said no one would want to believe it for much of his story is too sad, striking too close to home. By the age of twenty-four Boast had lost first his mother when he was seventeen, then his brother not two years later, and lastly his father. At this point you might be forgiven for assuming this is a misery memoir – that tired old genre which seems, thankfully, to have slipped away – but despite its inevitable sadness Boast’s book is as much a page-turning mystery as an exploration of what must have felt like overwhelming grief. When turning out his father’s papers he discovers not only that Andrew had been divorced but that he’d had two children by his first wife, two half-brothers kept secret from Boast and his brother.
Boast’s father drank himself to death – collapsing on his way home from work when his stomach ulcer ruptured – although some might say he died of a broken heart. His wife had succumbed to a brain tumour five years before, and his youngest son, Rory, had been killed in a car crash after a drunken spree. Both Andrew and Nancy were British, transplanted to Wisconsin via Ireland by Andrew’s plastics firm. Boast remembers visits to the UK, summers spent in Southampton and Salisbury, never quite feeling at home in the mid-West where the ‘Cheerio, everyone’ of his first day at school, aged seven, haunts him into his teenage years. He’s the studious son, his brother the wild one – handsome and cool with it. Their parents row continually about money, sleeping in separate rooms and seemingly only tolerating each other but Andrew nurses Nancy tenderly when she becomes ill. An accomplished engineer, he has forty patents under his belt, works all hours and is stingy to put it mildly. When Boast decides to get in touch with his half-brothers after Andrew’s death a different father emerges: a handsome, dapper young man, beautifully and expensively dressed; a charmer who marries an older woman.
Losing a parent when young marks you out but being left virtually without family by the time you’re twenty-four is a very hard burden to bear. To then find that there are two unknown half-siblings in the wings would be enough to send anyone into a flat spin. Boast’s book is a painfully honest account of his experience and how he sets about dealing – or not dealing – with it. His need to reach out to his half-brothers is coupled with a wariness that borders on suspicion; he finds himself in competition with Arthur as to which of their very different versions is the real Andrew; he uses his plight to manipulate young women – all this delivered in unfussy, un-selfpitying prose. In his final chapter he applies all that he’s learned about his family to his previous understanding of their history. We all know our parents as just that – their previous lives the stuff of family stories, embroidered and polished over the years. We take for granted what they tell us or what we choose to infer. We don’t ask about the gaps, the discrepancies – too caught up in our own growing-up, then our own lives until it’s too late. Epilogue is Boast’s attempt to fill those gaps. Let’s hope that writing it helped ease his pain.