Keith Maillard never knew his father. He was just a baby when his parents split up, and he grew up with the same two stories from his mother: “‘He was a good dancer,’ was the first thing she said about him. ‘He was the cheapest man who ever lived,’ was the second. The first was the reason she’d married him, the second the reason she’d left him.” When he receives a phone call telling him that his father has died, one of his first reactions is surprise: “He was born in 1901, for Christ’s sake. He must have been dead for years.”
Fatherless chronicles what comes next. It’s subtitled “a memoir,” but that only hints at the force and the breadth of the book. As Maillard searches for the truth about his father, the book – and the journey itself – keeps shifting. It’s part forensic investigation, part social history, part family saga, all threaded through a clear-eyed psychological portrait of what it means, for Maillard, to have grown up – and to have spent his adulthood – with a father-shaped absence in his life.
While the story is fascinating, with layers of family history and seeming truths unravelling in the hard light of facts, Maillard himself emerges as the most powerful element of the book. With simple, punchy prose and a keen emotional acuteness, the writer reveals himself in all of his anger, confusion, frustration, and sadness. He savours the small joys as bits of evidence about his father begin to come together – the life-changing moments when previously unimagined family members begin to appear – but he doesn’t shy away from the darkness at the core of the story.
Maillard’s wife, Mary, a documentary editor and genealogist, merits special mention as the crux of Fatherless. It is she who enables Maillard’s search, who spurs him to action when he is in danger of lingering in a sort of writerly despondency, and who accompanies and guides him through every stage of this journey. Her presence, and the keen, loving dynamic between the couple, is the emotional centre of the book – a compassionate heartbeat and a light in the darkness.