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A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies review – a raw account of fatherhood

Anthony Cummins
·2-min read

Peter Ho Davies’s last novel, The Fortunes, about Chinese migrants to the US, felt most alive when it swapped historical reconstruction for veiled autobiography. Maybe he thought so too: his new book stays close to the source of his most stimulating material, portraying early fatherhood as experienced by an unnamed creative writing teacher in the US – Ho Davies in silhouette, basically.

The crystalline narrative makes the point that children grow up fast

Moving briskly from one milestone to the next, from C-section birth to first overnight school trip, the crystalline narrative makes the point that children grow up fast, even if it rarely seems that way to a protagonist mired in marital tit-for-tat over night-time feeds and dawn starts. One minute, there’s drool cooling on his chest as he’s rocking his newborn to sleep; the next, his floors are booby-trapped with Lego and he’s boiling with rage at the more agile kids who leave his son for dust on an Easter egg hunt.

His recollections fizz with tell-all voltage: even Karl Ove Knausgaard might have blushed to write of his wife’s fingers “discreetly rolling linty pills of toilet paper out of his ass hair”, in a passage on how marriage makes sex “mundanely intimate”. Deeper interest lies in the troubling memory of a prior pregnancy, aborted after advice about a possible genetic disorder. As the protagonist wonders what his son might think, an obscure sense of shame compels him to volunteer at an abortion clinic, escorting women across the picket line – a dubious gesture, not least because it forces his wife to reschedule work when his shifts clash with daycare pickup.

Philosophical as well as confessional, Ho Davies’s autofictional proxy shrewdly dissects the mixed-up emotions of parenthood while speculating on, say, why children love dinosaurs (it’s a way of thinking about adults), or why his distaste for anti-abortion rhetoric leaves him unsure of how best to tell them about “babies in tummies”. Tender yet clear-eyed, this is a thoughtful, consistently intriguing book, covering a lot of ground in a short space.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply