Sunday, 8 May 2016

Book review: Farewell to the Father, Tim Elliott (2016)

This is a moving and powerful story of understanding and rebirth that comes in two parts. It is first of all the story of journalist Tim Elliott's father, who lived for years with depression and would probably have been diagnosed nowadays as bipolar. He was someone who in the end brings his own life to an end through an overdose of pills. This part is gruelling enough - though told with the compassion (for both the father and the young Tim, the youngest of four children) earned by living until middle age - but in the second part we must deal with the realities of Tim Elliott's own depressive episodes.

In this second phase of the book a lot of mistakes are made - often, as with the quantities of alcohol Elliott consumed, the same mistakes his father had made - but the process of growth and enlightenment brings him to a place where he is able to truly enjoy something that he has helped to build. He has three daughters and a loving wife - a woman he met when they were still at school, and who he split up with before going back and getting in touch with again in his late twenties - and a stable, supportive home life. He has a job he obviously loves doing (the journalist-turned-autobiographer seems to be something of a trope these days; I'm thinking of David Leser here, and his book, which I reviewed in 2014, To Begin to Know, which is also about the writer's father) and he obviously has attained a level of skill in writing that is uncommon and fulfilling.

(Though all-too-common in actual fact. They say that all journalists have at least one book in them. Considering the number of skilled journalists there are in the community, there must be a metric square ton of great stories just waiting to be written by these underappreciated members of our society.)

As someone, myself, who has fought to understand and come to terms with mental illness - in my case an illness that I live with personally - this second part of Elliott's book is particularly fascinating. There are many moments of great drama in it, moments that mark points of crisis, times of understanding, and periods of difficulty lived in all its turbulent colour. But there is also a lot of wisdom here in these pages as well. Elliott has tried to learn from the mistakes of his father - though as often as not they are mistakes he makes himself at one point or another - and we are also confronted with the stark fact that medical science has made gains in recent decades that can only be understood if we look back at the ways people coped with mental illness in earlier times. The drugs, for a start, are a lot better now. There is also a lot more understanding of the reality of mental illness in the community, which includes of course being able to sensibly discuss it with people so as to enable people living with it to continue to live in the broader community, and to live rewarding and productive lives.

I found reading this book a great joy. There is a tremendous quantity of drama in it, for a start, and drama always makes for great reading. (Great storytelling thrives on drama, and all journalists are taught to find it in each story they write in order to give the reader a reason to keep on reading.) But there is a lot more besides, and so this book can profitably be read by anybody, whether they have experience with suicide and mental illness or not. 

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