In short, Her Father’s Daughter is another amazing little book from Peirene. If you are a child of divorce, like me, you will recognise at least some of the emotions and scenarios in this book. There are moments and situations that will make your heart stop; things you recognise that you hoped you had forgotten. Her Father’s Daughter is a simple story with plummeting depths of emotional pain, laid out in front of the reader from a child’s point of view. The child (as she is most often referred to) does not understand the full weight of the situation, but you, the grown up version of her, understand it all with a lucid horror.
Marie Sizun wrote the book in her 60s, and it is filled with the wisdom of age looking back on youth. Through her wisdom we see the suffering of the child’s mother, left alone after her husband goes to war and is then kept prisoner for several years. You can see that she tries her best, but has a deep sadness within her. The news that her husband is to return is both a joy and a discomfort, as their little life is disrupted and the child has to learn that her father is a real person (she has never met him). The concept of a father, and that of a mother, is examined from the point of view of the child, only four years old, and we wonder what makes a person a parent – simple biology, or the nuances of everyday parenting.
When the father does come home he is an alien to the child, replacing her at her mother’s side. But the complexity of the relationships within this small family soon shows as the child turns towards her father and away from her mother. The change is circumstances shifts her entire view of her small world, and she begins to question what was once the norm. She also feels an intense desire for her father’s approval following his initial lack of affection and outbursts of anger (seemingly the symptoms of PTSD following his experiences in the war). To do so she reveals a secret, something she knows happened but that her mother and grandmother have insisted that she dreamed up. This revelation throws everything into turmoil, and her father once again becomes distant. She cannot understand the monumental spanner she has thrown into the works by revealing the secret. Her parents’ marriage crumbles around her as she is still trying to work out what on earth is going on. As an adult reader you understand the turmoils of their ruined marriage more than the child does, and it is heartbreaking to see this little family crumble. Sizun’s writing is sparse and to the point, whilst still being subtle enough not to create melodrama. There are hushed arguments and loaded comments, devastating silences and pained looks. Things will never be the same again.
At the end of the novel we get a few scenes from the adult life of the girl, and her later relationship with her father. We see the long term effects of her childhood revelation and come to understand that families do not forget, that some things will always be there (or noticeably absent). Sizun manages to capture the quiet pain that lasts from years before, and how we cope with heartbreak, both big and small. The effect is subtle and deeply moving, a poignant look at the delicacy of familial relationships.
While Her Father’s Daughter is not the cheeriest of books, it is beautifully written and very elegant, and certainly engaging despite the slow pace. Peirene have published yet another small masterpiece.
Originally published in France as La Pere de la Petite by Arlea in 2005; published in English by Peirene Press in 2016. My copy was kindly provided by Peirene for review.