Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Farewell to the Father
By Tim Elliott
ISBN: 9781743537893, Paperback, 336pp, 26th April 2016
Mary Karr has said that every memoir is a survival story, triumphant just because the people are still breathing. Tim Elliott’s Farewell to the Father is a survival story with a capital S. Max Elliott was a larger-than-live character—full of laughter, a thrower of grand parties, letting Tim and his siblings grow pot in the backyard, walking around naked and performing mock-deaths in restaurants for the amusement of his family. But he also suffered terrible lows. Max Elliott was bipolar, and his warm exuberance was countered by days of weeping, dangerous rages that had him shaking a knife at his wife and attempting to strangle his youngest son Tim. Max threatened suicide for years, but when he finally succeeded, his son was left bereft, blaming himself and dragging his feet through the same mud as his father—finding him in his own depressions, obsessive thoughts, and anxiety.
The book opens with Max’s first suicide attempt, when he tells his eight-year-old son to “always be a man.” At the time Tim had no idea what this meant, particularly in light of what his dad had just done. Max never clarified it either, at least not verbally, but Farewell to the Father attempts to uncover that answer. Tim Elliott’s journey is not only the search for his father—the man he adored and despised in equal measure (and it’s possible that we all adore and despise our fathers in equal measure, even when they don’t have a mental illness that ends in suicide), but also a search for the answer to the question of what it means to “always be a man”. The whole notion of manhood is brought into question in this book. Tim’s elder brother Rob exemplified that kind of manhood – the silent, surfing tough guy who doesn’t need help and doesn’t talk about feelings:
Rob regarded emotion as slippery and treacherous, like a kind of mud: one slip and you’d be down there, rolling around in it. (229)
In one almost throwaway line, Elliott says his perception of his brother wasn’t accurate, and it seems that this discovery that men don’t need to be caveman caricatures, and that vulnerability doesn’t equate to weakness, is one of the key themes of the book. The narrative is driven forward by Tim’s timorous steps towards feeling his own anger, recognising his dad and their illnesses for what they are, and ultimately moving towards forgiveness – of his father, his siblings, his mother, and most importantly, himself.
Farewell to the Father is exquisitely written: so earthy and ribald at times that the passages that are pure poetry almost come as a shock:
In winter, storms boil up the Southern Ocean, making it smoke, chiseling it with dagger-like winds, flogging up welts of swell capped with whiteness, plumes of ice and air that are shed in sheets as the waves push on, pulsing north, low breathing and full of intent.
These waves will try to drown you.
These waves will crack you open.
These waves set you free. (224-225)
Although the story is intensely sad, Farewell to the Father is never maudlin. At times it’s so funny, I found myself laughing out loud, even in the midst of horror:
But with Dad, everything came together south of the border, so to speak, in his bowels, his endlessly restive, serially malfunctioning bowels. Rarely in the history of colorectal medicine have a set of bowels exerted such complete dominion over one household. Piles, polyps, hemorrhoids, fissures: there was always something the matter with Dad’s back end, some unspeakable condition with whose symptoms – pain, swelling, bleeding – we all in time become intimately familiar. (92-93)
Max’s reprinted love letters to his wife, Tim’s mother Rosey, provide the chapter separators. The last one, which Rosey never saw, is especially moving. As Max’s illness progressed, his desperation and disintegration is both tragic and fascinating, following a fast-paced narrative towards the inevitable conclusion. The mingled sense of fear, anger, love, and guilt suffuse the pages, and although Tim’s story is an extreme one, anyone who has lost a parent will understand these emotions. The book ends with Tim admitting that he couldn’t save his father; that there was no answer; no key. But there is a key for Tim. The key is love: “I could do this. Love was all that was required, and I could love. I had that within me.” (289). Farewell to the Father is a powerful and beautiful book, and one that will resonate and stay with readers.