Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper. His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules. Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.
One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized. His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred’s firm, controlling hand. His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred’s bedside. Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage. Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father. Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop. He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.
May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years. Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions. When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn’t even withdraw money from the bank on her own. But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:
She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn’t any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More — a person. (p. 19)
Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family’s history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships. Each of the children bear scars from their father’s discipline and temper. Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside. Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith. Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself. Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.
This book is not for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred’s medical condition. May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her. Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity. Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually. There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee’s portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic and unnecessary. Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.