Poignant and lyrical, TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER takes the reader on a meandering journey through past and present. I'm not overly fond of memoirs - usually finding them dry, dusty and too factual - but, through the lens of coming to terms with her grief at her father's dying, Jennings has woven a masterful record of life to which everyone can relate.
Whether describing the small and personal details of her life (the "desperately ugly" ashtray she thought belonged to her grandfather) or minor details of her travels (the visit to a museum in India, filled with mouldy, stuffed animals - "a bat has fallen off its perch and has been put back so that it stands on its feet"), Jennings's writing is vivid and vibrant.
It is also searingly, at times painfully, honest ("The Jenningses do not speak of things that are unpleasant or relate to emotion in any way"). She often mentions her struggle with depression; her disappointment in the smallness of her father's life as he got older. As one reads, her words wrench emotion from one - too often, this is deeply coloured with melancholy and a quiet despair. At one point, her father said to her "Oh, girl, why do you have make things so difficult?"
There is no linear pattern to the stories and anecdotes filling the book. The reader is effortlessly carried along a stream-of-consciousness exploration of a period in the author's life starting with her father's death and ending with the scattering of some of his ashes in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. (A delightful scene near the end of the book, which reflects the end of mourning and the beginning of a new phase in her life). This adds to the sense of being personally, intimately involved in this journey of a daughter working through her grief at the loss of her very human, but much loved, father. There are no order to our memories, and TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER reflects that in its seemingly rambling (but exquisitely crafted) style.
Whether it's a lesson on the history of the places she visits on her travels triggering a memory of her childhood, or the discovery of a new notebook of her father's triggering memories of her family history, or her new lover's bow legs reminding her of her father, Jennings's masterful control of her subject and her dramatic use of words creates a compulsive need to continue reading.
Despite the ending, at that point when Jennings finds in her father's notes a reassurance of the very ordinariness of life that ties together all the threads of an ancestral line stretching both backwards into the past and forwards into the future to a time when she, too, will grow old and die - her acceptance of the cycle of life, in a way - when I finished reading, a darkness persisted, leaving me unsettled and edgy all day. In a way, my lingering sadness is a tribute to the high quality of Jennings's skill as a writer, but my more optimistic personality prefers to leave a book filled with a brighter sense of hope.