Review published on September 12, 2018.
Louisa Deasey’s father, Denison, died just before her seventh birthday, leaving her with just three distinct memories of him but, because of repeated, casual comments made about him, by family, friends and acquaintances as she was growing up, with many confusing and contradictory impressions of him. Although some of these pointed to him being a charismatic and remarkable man, most suggested that he was the “black sheep” of the family and hinted at wildness and unreliability – “he squandered three fortunes” ….. “he wasted his talents”…. “a failure” …. “a dilettante”. As young child she had loved her father and, as a freelance writer herself, had always felt a strong affinity with him – although she was never quite sure whether this was something about which she should feel proud or ashamed!
How could she ever find out who he really was? Her father had been in his sixties when he died and his parents and four of his six older siblings were already dead when Louisa was born, with the remaining two already being in their late sixties. Her parents had separated some years before he died and, knowing how painful her late mother had found it to talk about him, she had never felt able to ask her for explanations or information. With her two older siblings knowing little more than she did about their father, she had never had anyone who could tell her more about what he was really like. Although her brother and sister did have boxes of disparate papers and photographs, their attempts to organise these had proved too frustrating because there just wasn’t enough detailed information to put what they had into context, or to provide any coherent time-line. Most of her father’s papers are held at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne and, in 2006, when she was twenty-seven, she had asked to look at any papers relating to 1981; that was the year her parents were in the process of separating and she wanted to discover why. However, just that one year was represented by dozens of boxes of unsorted documents …. diaries, accounts, shopping lists, court documents, photographs …. and she found it too overwhelming and upsetting to continue with her search for answers.
Then, out of the blue in January 2016, Louisa received a Facebook message from a Frenchwoman called Coralie. She had discovered a cache of letters in the attic of her grandmother, Michelle, who had recently died. These letters, dated 1949, detailed a passionate affair between Michelle and Denison in post-war London and Coralie and her relatives were keen to discover more about him. Could Louisa help? As soon as she started to read these letters, Louisa felt that her father was being brought alive for her and she became determined to finally solve the mystery of who he really was. It was time to go back to the library and search for the truth, a search which would retrace his life, and which would have a profound effect, not only on Louisa and her family in Australia, but also Coralie and her’s in Paris.
From the opening chapter of this fascinating and moving memoir, I felt intimately drawn into Louisa’s search for the truth about her father, almost as though I was accompanying her every step on her journey, with all its roller-coaster ups and downs. It was a journey which was far from straightforward and was frequently upsetting, daunting and frustrating. When she began her search, she discovered that the inventory alone for his archived collection of papers ran to forty-four pages and, from her initial look at the folder descriptions, it was clear that there was no chronological coherence in the contents of the overwhelming number of boxes and folders! However, her committed, not to say dogged, persistence with her search, including a visit to France, brought wonderful moments of joy and discovery. These shone a new light on her father’s remarkable achievements and his approach to life, influencing and clarifying not only how she saw him, but also about how she felt about herself.
Denison Deasey was, quite clearly, a complex and fascinating man whose life had encompassed secret service in Australia during World War II, contact with many famous bohemian post-war artists and writers, and periods of time spent in Europe. His reflections about the social and political influences of the 1950s, and about the differences in attitudes and expectations between Australia, England and France, made for fascinating reading, bringing post-war conditions and attitudes vividly into focus. In addition, they offered insights into the lives of the writers and artists he spent time with, particularly during the time he lived in France. I also loved reading about the increasing closeness which developed between Louisa, her own family and the family in France, as they emotionally processed all the discoveries and links they were making. Although there are themes of loss, sadness and grieving in this story, the overpowering feelings I am left with are more concerned with how important sharing is, and how love and forgiveness can be such great healing forces, enabling people to move forward with more self-confidence and optimism.
Although Louisa’s story is unique to her, it highlights some universal themes about the secrets which can remain hidden in families and which, over time, can so easily become distorted. Her detective work in uncovering some of these buried truths in her own family should encourage all of us to do what we can to make it easier for future generations to have an accurate picture of their inheritance. The fact that she was able to gain access to so much written material, enabling her to reach back in such a profound way to her father’s experiences, thoughts and feelings, made me reflect on whether, in this digital age, this sort of rich source will no longer be available, and what the possible implications of this are. Maybe we should all be keeping diaries and writing letters! On a somewhat more practical level, what reading her memoir has encouraged me to do is to properly label and archive my thousands of photographs – a daunting job which I have been putting off for years!
In writing this review I haven’t wanted to go into any detail about the discoveries Louisa made because I think this would spoil it for anyone who wants to enjoy the journey as much as I did. However, what I do want to do is to urge you to read this remarkable memoir for yourself!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
A Letter from Paris by Louisa Deasey
Scribe UK 9781911617457 pbk Sep 2018