Book review

Peter Ho Davies, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan, is well known for his literary achievements. Winner of several prestigious awards, he has published two short-story collections and two previous historical novels. In his latest offering, “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself,” he attempts something new: an unnamed third-person narrator, a contemporary story delivered in the fashion of a prose-poem, and a meandering style. It is a candid look at fatherhood, the stresses a family undergoes when a child is born and difficult choices one must make in life, as well as the shame that can result. 

A young married couple wish to start a family. A first pregnancy is questioned when test results indicate abnormal chromosomes — mosaicism — in the unborn child. Taking the medical advice, however inconclusive, they abort the child. “It felt like a cruelty that the results existed. It felt like someone out there with a gun.”

The father, who has a science background, tries to make sense of it all. He and his wife try again. Much to their joy, a second pregnancy results in the birth of a baby boy. However, their concern rises when, on the delivery table, the baby turns blue. After being given intensive care, he appears to be fine. His sleep-deprived parents bring him home and settle down to an exhausting daily routine of nurturing him. The father contemplates his own emotions: “And what has he learned? Why, that he loves his son. The thought of losing him, the alarm bell of adrenaline and the shudder of relief, that’s love, he thinks. His heart feels clotted with it, knotted with love, clenched and choking.”

The happy, smiling baby, even though underweight, grows but is unable to go up and down the stairs. Before long, the boy’s kindergarten teacher begins to express concern about him being autistic. The parents wonder if further tests should be administered. 

They pay a visit to the hospital. The result is not encouraging. “Twice exceptional … half functional the father catches himself thinking in the weeks that follow as he watches the boy put his clothes on backward, shrug on his backpack before his coat.”

Peter Ho Davies will talk about “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself” in a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday, Jan. 11. (Lynn Raughley)

The parents consider other strategies, such as switching schools. The father, a writer, wonders if he should write about his son. “All these doubts and regrets. And all — miraculously, paradoxically — worth it. Because what comes to him now, when he writes of his son, what he feels most profoundly and purely is pride. The other side of the coin.” 

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In time, they learn to adjust to the situation.

The fact that the father teaches writing and was once a student of science might hint at this being a case of an autobiographical fiction. That speculation aside, one can enjoy the raw, honest depictions, the intimate details, and the fact that the story moves forward despite minimal plotting. The book consists only of 228 pages. Yet at times, it seems a trifle long, causing one to wonder: Might it have served better as a novella?

It becomes obvious that the author has embraced many of the tips he advocates to his writing students: Flesh out your characters. Choose your words carefully. Try to “speak the unspeakable — the unutterable made utterable by virtue of being written, whispered on page.”

To top it all, the father reveals on another occasion: “He once told students his goal in writing: I am trying to break your heart.”

That perhaps best sums up the reaction a reader has upon finishing the book.

Peter Ho Davies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pp., $24

Davies will discuss his new novel with author Bich Minh Nguyen in a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m. Zoom admission is free; admission plus a book is $28. See elliottbaybook.com.

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