William Feinnes's new memoir is not only beautifully written, it is both touching and revelatory.
Of home and family
Telling tales of appalling family situations, addictions, wrong decisions that change lives: the misery memoir is big business. In the UK, Julie Myerson's account of how she had to kick her son out of the family home is the publishing sensation of 2009. In the US, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces sold millions and had Oprah Winfrey lauding the author - before he was "outed" for having been somewhat economical with the truth. But what if there was another way? What if you could write a memoir of a challenging childhood which was moving without being cloying, beautifully written, based in a magical setting yet profound, universal and human? William Fiennes achieves these things in The Music Room, the follow-up to his first memoir, The Snow Geese. His second book has the writer delving further back into his own history, growing up in a moated castle with a brother who suffers from severe epilepsy. In a sense, it's the anti-Myerson, the anti-Frey in its tenderness and wisdom.
"To be honest I haven't read those sorts of books," Fiennes says. "But I am of course aware of them. The Music Room was being written out of love, that's the difference. Sometimes people write autobiographical books to settle a score or to put things right, but I think The Music Room and The Snow Geese do similar things, which is take images and experiences from my life but find universal ideas in them. So although The Snow Geese is about me being ill and getting better and going on this eccentric journey following birds, it's also about the idea of belonging, of homesickness, of what home means to people.
"I suppose the same thing happens in The Music Room; it's a very particular experience to me but it's also about something bigger, about a family coping with difficulty but living in a world with lots of beautiful, wonderful things in it. So I've never really thought about the genre of my books, and I've never really thought about The Snow Geese as a travel book, even though that's where it usually ends up in bookshops."
And Fiennes is right to suggest that The Music Room is unlike most memoirs, too. It has an initially odd construct - a privileged upbringing in a medieval and Tudor castle (which Fiennes, second cousin of the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and third cousin of the actor Ralph Fiennes, suggests was actually very normal because it was the only life he knew) contrasting with life around the severely epileptic Richard, an elder brother who could be capable of "unpredictable bolshiness or ingenuous warmth". But its brilliance is in how these strands come together, how care for the 700-year-old building, open to the public as a tourist attraction, mirrors the care for Richard and the way in which family life is revealed to be much the same wherever and whoever you are.
What it is not, though, is a warts-and-all tale. It is not giving away the ending - The Music Room isn't that kind of book - to reveal that Richard dies. But there is no schmaltzy, funereal finale. Fiennes's skill is his knack for knowing exactly which details to leave out. "There are quite a few moments in the book where I think the reader can see that I haven't delved too much," he says. "I hope that actually leaves room for the reader to react and imagine things. The example of the death and the funeral is a good one. Richard had died and I didn't really want to go much further into our family's grief.
"That was sacred ground, but with writing you have to believe you can talk about emotions and feelings without spelling every single thing out. I didn't feel the reader needed to be told all the time how to feel about things, how the boy narrating the book felt about everything. I think it's all there in the images and the way the language works." It helps that Richard was, as the book puts it, such a "magnetic presence". He was magnetic to Fiennes after his death, too. After all the acclaim and awards for The Snow Geese in 2002, he was expected to go on and become a novelist. But years passed, books were started and scrapped, and Fiennes realised that there was another part of his own story he really needed to tell.
"The problem was, I didn't care enough about the characters," he says of that time. "And then I immediately thought of Richard. When you lose someone close to you, you think you're going to remember them forever but, of course, things start to fade. So I started to write tiny memories down, just small things that I thought I was starting to lose, such as his mannerisms. Then I realised that was all tied together with this very unusual and beautiful house I grew up in.
"It was not just a memorial and tribute to Richard, I realised, but a real story of growing up in that house which had everything in it. I came to think of that house, surrounded by water, as being the world. There was so much beauty, wonder and love in it and also lots of pain, difficulty and loss. So I really felt that everything that a writer could possibly hope to write about was right there."
Fiennes does indeed have that writerly eye for detail. Richard's mood swings mean he turns so violent that the young William dreams the house is under attack. He describes some of his brother's seizures as being like his arm had "touched a red-hot coal". Fiennes is also not embarrassed to write that being on the periphery of these outbursts was in some way exciting for a child: "The room's fibres stiffened; the threat of violence sharpened the air. Something mean deep inside me savoured the tension". But there is just one paragraph, after Richard has broken a window of the castle with an iron bar, which sums up just how expertly, and poetically, Fiennes describes the peculiar (but loving) relationship the family have with the castle and each other.
"One afternoon I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn't move. 'What are you doing?' I asked. He said he was asking the house for some of its strength." "That image was incredibly moving, yes," says Fiennes. "It said so much not just about what they were going through but also their love and care for the place. That idea of care is so important to the book: obviously my parents had to be stewards of the house in a completely different way to people who have an apartment, but that idea of looking after the world around you whatever that may contain is a big part of it."
But writing such images down was also difficult for Fiennes because - rightly or wrongly - it could imply that he was being in some way disrespectful to Richard's memory. "Those phases in the book, where Richard was aggressive or violent, were incredibly hard to write about simply because he had such an amazing capacity for remorse or sorrow. There's a quote in the book from Richard where he says, 'I'm such a horrible person. I don't know how anyone could be friends with a person like me.' So it needed to be this celebration of him because he was this magnificently soulful being. In a way, you know, the difficult stuff made him bigger I think, because you forget in these situations that it's also difficult for the person involved to cope with. It was awful for him to remember later how he'd behaved; he would be distraught about it."
Richard looms large in The Music Room - and rightly so - but the story works as a fully rounded memoir full of wisdom and memory because of its other strands. Richard disappears for whole sections as Fiennes explores his younger self growing up in a house where film crews would arrive to shoot scenes for movies. In recent years it was Gwyneth Paltrow's house in Shakespeare In Love and featured in the 1990 comedy Three Men And A Little Lady.
Another strand of the story is the way in which the author teases out key elements of our own understanding of the human mind. But what does Fiennes hope that his readers will take away from The Music Room? "Well, Richard used to have this phrase when he was melancholic that he felt 'downput'," he recalls. "I hope the book is the opposite of that, that people feel lifted up by it." And as for all those scrapped books, could writing about the characters that mean the most to him - his family - provide the spur to Fiennes finally realising his potential as a novelist.
"I do hope it might be easier," he reflects. "I did think for a while after The Snow Geese that perhaps the old maxim that everyone has a book in them had come true: The Snow Geese was mine and that was that. "But then, The Music Room was always in the back of my mind. It was too raw at first, too soon after Richard's death. I was a bit embarrassed about the house too, probably too worried that people would laugh at me and think it all too posh. But I had to do it, I had to get down these images and thoughts in this way, and it's certainly opened up my horizons. I'm fascinated to see what might come out next."
The Music Room (Picador) is out now.