Scoop Review of Books

Family Secrets

A History of Silence: a Memoir by Lloyd Jones
Penguin Books, RRP: $38

Reviewed by Simon NathanHistSilence-001

The first page of this book contains a geological quotation from my colleagues Hamish Campbell and Gerard Hutching: “Faults may appear haphazard, but they are never random. There is always a hidden control or reason for their presence….”. It seemed a strange choice, but the meaning gradually became clear as Lloyd Jones painstakingly pieces together the story of his family, and discovers some of the relationships that his parents never understood or explained.

As always, Lloyd Jones writes wonderful evocative prose, and it was easy for me to identify with some of his experiences. Like him I am also an ‘autumn leaf’, born much later than my siblings, and brought up almost as an only child after the older ones have left home. I work only a few hundred metres away from 20 Stellin Street where the Jones family lived, and know many of the places he describes in Lower Hutt, Wellington and Christchurch. And I have been involved with family research, which so often seems like doing a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

The shock of the Christchurch earthquake acted as the catalyst for his journey. That is part of the story, but my suspicion is that the author was also driven by the natural urge that affects so many people as they get older to explore their roots, and to find out about the things that their parents never told them.

Jones relates that, “We grew up unable to see much beyond the birth of our parents”. His father was an orphan, and his mother was abandoned by her own mother. They were two isolated individuals, and not surprisingly the parents did not reminisce to their children about the past. 20 Stellin Street was a state house in a pleasant part of the Hutt valley, and it must have seemed a haven of normality to the Jones parents after their difficult younger years.

The journey to discover his family leads Lloyd Jones into some unexpected and uncomfortable places – certainly not the stroll down Memory Lane that some families might experience. Like most historical research there are lulls. In the middle of the book I was starting to wonder, “Is this all?”, but suddenly a discovery in the archives starts to make sense of scattered threads. The bundle of long-hidden papers comes to life in Jones’ hands as a terrible story. What is revealed in official court documents is the stuff that used to fill the weekly Truth. Suddenly we understand why Jones’ mother was abandoned, but is it the full story?

This is a gripping book, and I look forward to reading it again and reflecting over the details. One immediate thought is to wonder about the forces that shaped the lives of the children of Joyce and Lew Jones. 20 Stellin Street produced both Lloyd Jones and older brother Bob Jones, distinguished New Zealanders in different fields, characterized by drive, original thought and a love of words. Is it the effect of random genetics, or the influence of working class parents wanting their children to succeed? Growing up in a state house and going the nearest state school is similar to the John Key story. Both Jones boys, 17 years apart, went to Victoria University in the days when university education was not the norm – did this open new worlds to them? Lloyd Jones does not attempt to answer this question, but it is one that many readers will ponder.


READER EVENT: A Q & A with Lloyd Jones

The New Zealand Listener, Penguin Books and the New Zealand Book Council invite you to attend a Q & A with Lloyd Jones.
Join Listener Books & Culture editor Guy Somerset for a conversation with acclaimed New Zealand author about his new book, A History of Silence: A Memoir.
Superbly written, A History of Silence is an extraordinary work from one of New Zealand’s master storytellers. It uncovers Jones’s past … revealing stories he never expected to find. The 2011 earthquake that shook Christchurch to its core led Jones to investigate his own foundations and family history. And so begins a quest to revisit what has been buried by a legacy of silence.

Jones is one of New Zealand’s best known contemporary writers. His works include Biografi, a New York Times Notable Book, and the novels The Book of Fame – winner of numerous literary awards – Choo Woo, Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, Paint Your Wife, Hand Me Down World and the phenomenally successful Mister Pip, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Montana Medal for Fiction and the Kiriyama Writers’ Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted into a film, which goes on general release on October 3.

DATE: Monday, September 9
TIME: 6.30pm
LOCATION: City Gallery, Civic Square, 101 Wakefield St, Wellington

DATE: Tuesday, September 17
TIME: 6.30pm
LOCATION: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, Silver Road, Epsom, Auckland

Credit card: Visit
Cheque: Please post your name and address with a cheque for the total of the number of tickets you require made out to ‘NZ Magazines’ to ‘Listener Event’, PO Box 90119, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142