Books

Book Review: Between Them, Richard Ford

American giant Richard Ford's parents remain elusive, but this memoir is a worthy act of love

There is nothing remarkable about the parents of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Ford. That much is made clear in Between Them, Ford’s memorial to the travelling salesman and his dedicated wife who loved and raised their only child with much love but little drama or intrigue. It is this consistent ordinariness, of personality as well as circumstance, on top of the family’s propensity not to discuss personal issues of any depth, which makes this such a curious book. In the end, we learn little about the internal life of the people it is dedicated to remembering. But we can be sure that love endures, long after memory begins to erode.

The facts are commonplace, but, like all gossip, engaging. Parker, as Ford saw him, was an affable, understated, routine-bound man who “liked to be happy”. Edna, who married when she was just 17, was more dynamic – “pretty, black-haired, small, curvy, humorous, sharp-witted, talkative”. Until baby Richard tied Edna at home, they enjoyed what seemed like a very happy marriage spent almost entirely together; she accomp-anied him as he toured the southern states with a Ford Tudor full of starched laundry.

Ford’s parents’ manners and affections, pleasures and frustrations, take on weight through unsentimental but tender renderings

Ford is one of America’s most gifted human anthropologists; his short stories and canonical Frank Bascombe novels are towering examples of the kind of alchemy which, to steal from Leonard Cohen, brings to light the small things, which stand for all things. When Ford says his father is “a character to whom the great Chekhov would ascribe a dense-if-not- necessarily-rich interior life”, it’s hard not to think of Bascombe, who, like John Updike’s Rabbit, is an unexceptional man made fascinating by a great writer. The same magic is applied to Ford’s parents. Their manners and affections, pleasures and frustrations take on weight through unsentimental but tender renderings.

If Parker and Edna do have rich interior lives however, Ford cannot get to them. Instead he asks questions. What did his parents talk about on their long journeys through the south? Was the surprise late arrival of a child and his impact on their peripatetic life welcomed or resented? How much did fear of death stalk them after Parker’s heart attack at 43? Ford can only guess, because he never asked. He does away with what might have been a huge issue for his widowed mother – his choice not to have children – with a casual wave-off sentence.

So what we are left with in the end, through ellipses, expressions of love, and the very fact of his biographical endeavour, is a testament to the art of writing, and a little insight into the watchful detective who, decades after his death, says of his still enigmatic father: “He would not have thought that 70 years later I cannot remember the sound of his voice, but long to.”

Between Them, Richard Ford, out now on Bloomsbury, £12.99

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