Fraser Harrison is an Englishman in his early forties who decided some years ago to forsake his job in publishing and to move, with the woman who eventually became his wife, to a country place in Suffolk. There he has written books and concerned himself with various good works, while his wife has raised sheep and geese and other creatures. Together, additionally, they have produced two children, Tilly and Jack, who are the principal subjects of "A Father's Diary," a book that aims to be charming but, for me at least, falls short by a country mile.
One May it was Harrison's inspiration to keep a diary of a year in the lives of himself and the children. At the time Tilly was 4 years and 8 months, Jack was 3 1/4, and Harrison was 37. "I have called this a father's diary," he begins, "because most of its entries are concerned with my children and my own thoughts, feelings and experiences as their father." It is a nice idea, and from first page to last Harrison applies himself to it with deadly earnestness, but he never manages to bring any coherence to it, and the unfortunate result is that it falls flat.
In order that a diary be of interest to anyone except its author and persons mentioned in it, the people it describes must be lively, interesting and, insofar as they help us understand ourselves, important. At the risk of seeming to make an ad hominem comment on Harrison and his family, it must be said with regret that he fails to imbue himself or anyone else in his story with these qualities. By his own admission his wife Sally is a shadowy figure in the book, but Tilly and Jack do not really fare all that better; and Harrison spends so much space indulging his relentlessly correct views on child-bearing, child-rearing, the environment and other subjects that he himself comes across as just a bit of a bore.
This, in fact, is the book's principal shortcoming: Harrison is so in love with the sound of his own voice that he tells us everything and shows us nothing. He makes more than a few perceptive observations, but his method is to drone on about them rather than to let us see their roots in the actions and activities of his children; for a book concerned with a year in the lives of two bright and energetic youngsters, "A Father's Diary" is remarkably deficient in anecdote and incident.
It also fails to deliver on its main promise; there is precious little in "A Father's Diary" that tells us how being a father is different from being a mother, that gives us the child-rearing experience from the vantage point usually overlooked. When Harrison says, for example, that "the emotions aroused in me by my children are more intense and overpowering than any I have felt outside the keenest moments of sexual infatuation," he says nothing that distinguishes these emotions from those felt by a mother; he is merely telling us, with feeling, that he loves his children, which is all well and good but which sheds no light on the particularity of fatherhood.
He is at pains, though, to let us know that as a father he is the very model of enlightenment. He curses himself for losing his temper, he frets over the aims and forms of discipline, he proudly describes the free and easy manner with which the Harrison household talks of matters sexual and encourages the random fondling of genitals and other private parts. This may cause discomfort among those who feel, as alas I do, that certain things should be brought to the attention of children in the fullness of time; but this no doubt is our fault and attention must not be paid.
"A Father's Diary" is a book I had much wanted to read because it seemed to offer the prospect of rekindling memories of the many pleasures I found in the early childhood of my own sons, but it made few connections for me; if it does for many others, I will be surprised. For all the modesty with which he presents himself to us, Harrison is too self-satisfied to be as engaging a protagonist as he would like to be; when he smugly tells us that he is "a child-oriented father," he seems to be saying nothing so much as that he is superior to the rest of us who are, presumably, father-oriented fathers. Whatever his intent, it is not a tactic designed to endear him, or his book, to his readers.