Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author of the forthcoming book “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.”
If family secrets are the stuff memoirs are made of, it’s no wonder the genre is flourishing. Nearly every family has them, and rare is the family that encourages its members to explore the dark corners of its past or present. Tyler Wetherall’s was no exception, but in her case, words had a particular power that necessitated silence. As she puts it, “We all grew up with one rule: don’t tell!”
It is a small miracle that Wetherall has finally broken that silence in her debut memoir, “No Way Home,” having grown up under the constant admonition to never mention her father to anyone. Even after the danger has long passed, she is terrified at the imagined consequences of committing words to the page. She curls up in fear one day and frantically calls her father to make sure once again that her parents won’t go to prison if she tells their story. Yes, her father tells her, it’s okay to talk now. And more than that, he wants her to, hoping that something good can come out of all they have been through. And indeed it has, for Wetherall has written a luminous memoir that no one who reads it will soon forget.
The book’s two parts, “Before” and “After,” bracketed with short sections labeled “Now,” not only balance the book but almost split it into two. “Before” has the feeling of a thriller told from the point of view of innocence. It’s an arresting, absorbing read as we come to know Tyler the child, the youngest in her family and, it would seem, the most attuned to the unspoken and unspeakable. She is swept along from home to home, mostly within England, inured to the routine abandonment of things and clandestine trips to remote phone booths to talk to her father, who is on the run across the continent. Men in black suits, driving black cars, show up at her home and turn it upside down in search of clues to her father’s whereabouts. She and her sister are taken by strange friends across the Channel to reunite briefly with their father, whose smell, Wetherall says, is like home to her. Their visits are small adventures any kid would relish. They float on the Seine in Paris, ski in the Alps and scuba dive in Saint Lucia, enveloped in the bright sunshine of their father’s love. But all the while they are haunted by a dark cloud of secrets they don’t fully grasp.
In this part of the book, Tyler is aware only that her father has had to flee England for legal reasons. Her mother will tell her and her sister only that he did something when they were little and they were all living in California. “She dismissed it as a ‘financial issue really, dodgy taxes.’ ” Through it all, as Tyler struggles to carry on with the business of growing up, she conveys her exceptional yet familiar experiences in language that makes the reader stop and savor, or simply chuckle. She is witty and eloquent on the passing of childhood, describing how games and toys lose their power. She remembers fondly playing horses, pretending that she was a Lipizzaner “crashing over jumps erected from garden furniture” and that her sister was her trainer. It was the one game that “had survived long after other make-believe worlds had crumbled away, their inhabitants dead and their villains unvanquished.” Meanwhile, she writes, “our miniature farmyard had become dusty and the animals sticky and apathetic with time, and the zoo set lay abandoned, with zebras and tigers in dangerous proximity.” In place of childish things, she now had the secret of her father’s flight from the law and the fears that came with it: “I had a theory that if I thought about all the things I least wanted to happen, then somehow, by some law of probability, they were less likely to occur. I made terrible things happen in my head night after night like a prophylactic indulgence in the macabre.”
The title of the book’s second half, “After,” signifies not only the fallout of her father’s arrest but also the aftermath of her fall from innocence. Now she knows what he has done and why the FBI and Scotland Yard have been searching for him all these years. As the scales fall from her eyes, the tone and perspective shift. She is a teenager now, struggling to figure out what all teenagers want to know: Who are my parents? Where have I come from? And who am I? This requires getting her parents to talk. Tyler finds out that her father is wanted not only for being a multimillion-dollar drug smuggler but also for being a kingpin. He has been charged with heading up a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise,” the same charge brought against Al Capone. His defense to his daughters is that he smuggled only marijuana, which isn’t a dangerous drug, and that he was helping to support other families. Tyler, however, can’t accept that he continued to take risks despite his already vast wealth and his responsibilities to his young family. She was less than a year old when they fled California.
In the second half, we are in the world of grown-ups trying to fix what they have broken. We miss the wry voice of innocent young Tyler trying blindly to make sense of everything, and we almost regret having our eyes opened. The prose becomes more matter-of-fact and less luminously ponderous. Yet soon it becomes clear that the questions driving her story are no longer what will happen to her fugitive father and what has he done, but what will happen to Tyler? Will she survive it all? Will she maintain a relationship with her dad? Who will she ultimately become? Now we are more firmly in the familiar territory of the coming-of-age memoir.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that Wetherall begins to understand herself as not simply a product of one family’s experiences, and not only as part of a far-flung network of fugitive families, but also as a member of “a generation of nomads.” Having settled in America, a country of immigrants and wanderers, she comes to see home as “a work in progress.” As in any good coming-of-age story, our heroine has left family behind and begun to make her home in the wider world. Now that she has done so, we eagerly await the new stories she will tell.
By Tyler Wetherall
St. Martin’s. 305 pp.. $26.99