Father and Son

Press Association, September 12 2004

My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father, by Hanif Kureishi. Faber, £12.99. Available now

One more bitter thing about failure: all the books on it are written by successes.

Or all, at least, of the published ones. Hanif Kureishi says his father Shannoo led a "semi-broken" life; and Shannoo Kureishi wrote a series of rejected novels. These now form the substrate of My Ear at His Heart.

Kureishi discusses his father's childhood in India - and his years of frustration working in Pakistan's London embassy - supplementing three unpublished manuscripts with the best-selling autobiography of his uncle Omar, the high-living journalist brother Shannoo always envied. Bearings are also provided from the writings of Gandhi and Enoch Powell. We are shown the nationalist meaning of schoolboy cricket in Bombay, and the cocooning hopelessness of life in suburban Bromley. From there, we move to the son's rebellion, and the growth of his artistic career.

My Ear at His Heart is an acute, uncomfortable little book - part memoir, part criticism, part biography, part journal. Tenderness competes with truth, rivalry with eulogy. And if Kureishi isn't prepared to tidy up the tensions, that doesn't mean he's not aware of them. At one point, he says what he's doing "feels like a cross between love-making and an autopsy". Neither of which most boys would want to perform on their dads.

It's doubtful whether the elder Kureishi would have enjoyed seeing his hopes entombed in this way - although the son comes to appreciate his father's work, and to see his reading of it as a tribute, he shows no sign of wanting any of it printed outside these covers. He's also too concerned with his own development to let his father be the unequivocal centre of the story. But he recovers enough of Shannoo Kureishi's world, and conveys enough of his charm, to set up at least some kind of a memorial in the minds of readers.