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Andrew O'hagan Biography

missing family fathers hugh

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, Scotland, 1969. Career: Former assistant editor, London Review of Books; writes for London Daily Telegraph. Lives in London.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Our Fathers. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Short Stories

Contributor, The Junky's Christmas and Other Stories, edited byElisa Seagrave. New York, Serpent's Tail, 1994.

Other

The Missing (nonfiction). New York, New Press, 1996.

* * *

With one novel and one nonfiction book to his credit, Andrew O'Hagan has already established himself as a writer of some achievement and considerable promise. O'Hagan had begun to make a name for himself as a journalist and editor when his first book, The Missing, was published in 1996; this is a combination of family history, autobiography, and an exploration of a range of cases of people who mysteriously disappear from society, sometimes to reappear later in grim circumstances—as murder victims, for example—and sometimes to vanish without trace. In The Missing, O'Hagan tells the story of his grandfather, lost at sea in 1940, and of his own tough childhood in a working-class family that moved out from Glasgow's tenements to the new town of Irvine when he was three. Irvine represented the social hopes of city planners for a better life for the working class, but it continued to be marked by violence and gang warfare. The Missing won O'Hagan high praise; and his concern in that book with family history across the generations and with the failure of idealistic planning projects is carried through into his first novel, Our Fathers.

Our Fathers takes the form of a fictional family history narrated by Jamie Bawn, who travels from England to Scotland to pay a last visit to his grandfather, Hugh Bawn. The brutalist, run-down tower block in which Hugh lies dying is a symbol of his failed political aspirations, and more generally of the collapse of a certain kind of Utopian socialism. Once an admired civic leader dubbed "Mr. Housing" who wanted to provide proper, inexpensive homes for working-class people, Hugh is now held responsible for the trauma of the tower blocks and is under investigation for financial corruption. Ironically, Jamie works as an executive for a demolition firm that, among other things, razes tower blocks to the ground. As Jamie attends Hugh's deathbed and reflects on his grandfather's life, he also painfully recalls the lives of Robert, his own father, and Thomas, his great-grandfather. Thomas, moving from the country to the city, started to drink and was only saved from alcoholism by death in World War I. Robert, lacking Hugh's social concern, was also a heavy drinker who disappeared from view like the people O'Hagan wrote about in The Missing. It is the women who are left behind—Thomas's wife, Margaret, and Jamie's mother, Alice—who bravely take on the task of supporting their families. But Jamie's recollections result in a partial reconciliation both with his grandfather and with his father, whom he tracks down and rescues from the ranks of the missing; he also comes round to wishing for a family of his own, although he has earlier been trying to force his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion in order to stop the transmission of unhappiness to future generations of Bawns. In Our Fathers, a particular family history in a harsh environment finally becomes a metaphor for the pains and possibilities of life itself.

Our Fathers is a powerful, serious work that tackles large themes with skill, if not with complete success. Despite the importance and interest of the stories that it tells, it lacks narrative drive; the potentially dramatic sequences are slowed down by poetic passages. O'Hagan has himself identified the Scottish lyrical tradition, represented by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as one of his fundamental inspirations, and criticism has detected in the prose of Our Fathers the influence of the contemporary Scottish poets John Burnside, Robert Crawford, and Douglas Dunn. But O'Hagan's first novel made a well-deserved impact and was one of the six works shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary award for fiction. Still in his early thirties, O'Hagan is likely to produce further fiction and has the potential to become a substantial contemporary novelist.

Nicolas Tredell

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