Published by Short Books 14 March 2013
176pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by Paul Sidey
This is a short memoir published by Short Books. When the author was only four years old, his father abandoned him and his family for another woman. Christiansen never saw him again.
Christiansen’s grandfather was editor of Beaverbrook’s Express, his father editor of the Daily Mail, a mistress to whom he was devoted. Rupert, named after the eponymous bear of the famous Express cartoon series of the fifties, is the opera critic of the Telegraph. Words are in his blood. He writes observantly, succinctly and with great compassion about his mother.
There was also a cache of letters for the author to work through, but, as a detective story, I Know You Are Going To Be Happy hardly comes up with anything revelatory. As an exercise in exorcism, perhaps the investigation into the past has been a help for Christiansen in coming to terms with himself. But compared, say, with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her stepmother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? even his title does not issue the same kind of challenge.
Where Winterson’s account of a surreal, cruel childhood has both a visceral intensity and a marvellous, life-enhancing humour, Christiansen’s Pett’s Wood upbringing, however sad, cannot compete. He is a good, experienced writer, but it is a mystery why he felt the need to put this autobiographical fragment on record.
Candia McWilliam – whose own recent memoir was nakedly confessional about her personal scars – is quoted on the back panel of Christiansen’s book, commenting admiringly of his ability to evoke ‘the history of consciousness and its conscience, both richly aware and unfashionably, grandly fierce’. I guess I must have missed something.
The publisher’s blurb also suggests that I Know You Are Going To Be Happy ‘chronicles with novelistic power a generation for whom the experience of the Sixties brought emotional chaos as well as liberation’. But I don’t see that readers of Christiansen’s memoir are going to come away with a sense that a period has been recreated with great dramatic intensity, any more than the author achieves in the search for emotional motivation and some kind of closure as regards the father who deserted him.