A review of One Hundred Letters Home by Adam Aitken

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

One Hundred Letters Home
By Adam Aitken
Vagabond Press
2016, 304pp. ISBN 978-1-922181-04-6, April 2016

Though often presented as fact, memoir straddles the line between fact and fiction. Memory is like that: built on an enduring sense of self predicated on memory, and yet continually renegotiated and filtered through an ever-changing perception in the present. Aitkin’s memoir doesn’t shy from the contradiction. Instead One Hundred Letters Home explores a different kind of truth; one that is poetic, multi-faceted, and scaffolded by images and imaginings. 

The book is structured into twenty six more or less self-contained essays. They are ordered chronologically but each piece travels in nonlinear ways between memory and the ephemera we collect: photographs, poems, letters, imagined and real conversations, allowing for the contradictions inherent in any life. This isn’t so much a story about what happened, but one about connection, inheritance, and shift.  The writing is exquisite throughout, carefully controlled and yet fluid and expansive. The underlying force that drives the work forward is the search to find enough of the self in the past to give meaning to the present. It’s a search that is doomed to fail. The failure itself is a kind of destination that is more poignant and powerful than success.

I imagine I might recover the stories my grandfather never told his on, and those stories my father has never told me. There are perhaps volumes of anecdotes, yarns, tall tales, and more lies and half-truths. There would be biographies of uncles and aunts living on after war, living without anticipation of another terror to come. There, somewhere in the virtual world, is a key to the past that will grant me a thousand and one narratives. Living links and links to the dead. Perhaps that is all we need. (“Stolen valour”)

The story is built around the relationship of Aitken’s English/Australian father and his Thai mother–their courtship, marriage and its dissolution forms the main narrative thread.  There is more than one story here though. The ongoing epistolary narrative between Aitken and his nonexistent “Dear Doctor” psychiatrist forms another narrative, working in an opposite direction to the main one – going back rather than forward. There is also the narrative around Aitken’s own journey back to Thailand, in which he attempts to learn to speak Thai, and integrate into Thai society. One of the lessons from that story is that nostalgia is a trap. There is no home to go back to: 

Everything you have imagined to be the truth of your origins begins to seem like illusion.  Something always eludes you. Something is always secret, and you know, so deeply, when it’s time to leave. (“(Un)becoming Thai: Bankok 1982”)

Though the narrator’s identity, working as it does between the concrete and the literary, hovers in a liminal space, the work is anchored by Aitken’s precision and the immediacy of his emotions as he encounters both the history he can find—and the limits of that:

This is the point where one strand of documentation — my father’s — comes to an abrupt end, literally.  There is no more Melbourne airmail paper to read after a hundred letters home. And the other strand, that speaks of my parents and spans at least three or four countries, has been incinerated.  (“One Hundred Letters Home”).

The setting moves between Thailand, Malaysia, England and Australia, and is always just out of the frame as the destination one can settle or find as home. There are references to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Naipaul’s the Minuteman, Anthony Burgess’ The Long Day Wanes and many other texts are integrated into narratives, undermining the stereotypes that are created in these separate books.  Between the images, the recollections, the references, the correspondences and the longing, a new kind of story emerges – one that allows the the gaps in the narrative to remain unknown. Aitken doesn’t find the “key to a past the will grant…a thousand and one narratives” (“Stolen Valour”). Instead he finds questions that become Koans, a pathway to a greater truth:

Where is the healing in writing?  Is this simply re-telling the past or are we re-making it?  Is it a story that becomes a promise—a redeeming moment?  What are we making of memory but an intervention, the commitment to a future? (“Here the ashes”)

One Hundred Letters Home is a beautiful story that charts what is lost, and what is carried through our chaotic, multi-faceted lives. Always, home is a destination that forms a reference point, while remaining a permanent space of longing, forgiveness and recognition.