As challenges go, fatherhood can be beautiful and rewarding. The health of one’s child, however, may complicate matters. A couple forced to confront some of these challenges is at the center of Peter Ho Davies’ excellent third novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself.
The book is told from the perspective of a man who is now a writer but used to be a scientist. At the outset, in wrenchingly spare prose, a doctor gives the man and his editor wife, expecting their first child, a grim prognosis: The fetus had mosaicism, a rare condition that offers only “a tiny chance. BB-sized” that the baby will be born in normal health. The couple decides to abort.
The next pregnancy produces a seemingly healthy boy, until he turns blue on the delivery table and has to spend four days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Davies infuses these scenes with heartbreaking detail, as when the father sits by the incubator, talking to his son, saying, “Little guy, it’s Daddy,” while an IV drips into a tiny arm.
After the boy recovers, Davies brilliantly describes the quotidian aspects of raising a baby that leave the couple “floaty with exhaustion,” from shopping for baby monitors to, in one of many invocations of Schrödinger’s cat, wondering whether the quiet of the baby’s room means their child is sleeping or dead.
When a kindergarten teacher suggests the boy may be autistic, the couple resists having him tested for fear of what they might learn. This leads to more soul-searching on the part of the father, even prompting him to volunteer at an abortion clinic to help him sort through lingering feelings about the couple’s earlier decision.
Though the child comes across as an abstraction rather than a fully fleshed-out character, the eloquence of Davies’ writing will make readers sympathize with a father trying to be a good parent and a good person and wondering if he’s succeeding. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a poetic meditation on the nature of regret and a couple’s enduring love through myriad difficulties. It’s a difficult but marvelous book.