Our first glimpse of Tom Frayn captures something of the mystery that fathers—those at times tyrannical, frequently magical, often all-too-human beings—tend to present to most of us. “The door opens a few inches. Around the edge of it, with a certain deferential caution, comes a hat. A black homburg.” It is 1969 and Frayn, the British playwright best known for Noises Off, is in his mid-30s. “The hat is followed by a pair of spectacles—a hearing aid—a trim gray moustache. And my father’s smile, like the sun coming up.”
What follows, for the better part of 300 pages, is Frayn’s thoughtful, obsessive, darkly funny exegesis of his father’s life. Now years older than Tom when he died, Frayn is wistful but hard-nosed in outlining his history, and My Father’s Fortune, complete with references to birth certificates and census returns, is a heroic recreation of a vanished world. Young Tom is a quick-witted asbestos salesman, a natty scrimp, a teller of tall tales in Cockney slang, whose early life unspools like a 20th-century Dickens story. He shares two rooms with his parents and four siblings, all six of them deaf (Tom loses his hearing only later), but emerges from this penury, with salesman’s patter and all-embracing grin, to marry well, raise a family through the Blitz and much else beyond.
It’s an admiring portrait, not just of Tom but of a son’s evolving love for his father. If the details occasionally drag (one chapter is devoted to the Frayns’ furniture), they’re all in the service of this striving to salvage time gone. Frayn is candid—about tormenting his nerve-worn granny, his lack of gratitude for his father, his snobbery as a budding aesthete—self-deprecation that’s wonderfully wry. Above all, the book is exquisitely written and almost too intimate. Near death, in hospice and unable to speak, his father still smiles—as though, writes Frayn, he has “faded, like the Cheshire Cat, until only his smile remains.”