“I was transformed into an old man quite suddenly, on June 11, 2011, three days short of my sixty-ninth birthday,” writes Jonathan Raban, describing the effects of a massive stroke that left him a wheelchair user and without the use of one hand. Raban, who died in January 2023 from complications from that stroke, used voice dictation software to write and edit this posthumously published book, Father and Son, which interweaves his weeks in rehab with the World War II story of his father, who served for three years in the British Army—in Dunkirk, Tunisia, Anzio and Palestine—not meeting his son until his return. It’s a highly personal account of two very different experiences of trauma, loss of agency and adjustment.
Throughout, Raban is brutally honest, not shying away from the ways his personal habits may have contributed to his stroke (“I had left my high blood pressure unmedicated. I was a daily wine drinker and . . . a lifelong smoker.”) or the many indignities he had to suffer during his recovery, such as asking for assistance going to the bathroom. He sings the praises of kind helpers and skewers others, such as a doctor who greeted him by saying, “You’re the one who used to be a writer.” With piercing humor, he notes: “I very much hope that I’m still a writer. I very much hope that I’ll write about this—about you—when I get out of the rehab ward.” He devours other memoirs about strokes and is never short on opinions, calling, for instance, Jill Bolte Taylor’s much-lauded My Stroke of Insight “an unsatisfactory blend of neuroscience, woo-woo, and outdated locationism.” In alternate chapters, Raban meticulously traces his parents’ courtship and his father’s unhappy stint as a teacher and rapid rise as a military officer during the war, using his parents’ letters as well as other histories. Although it’s not exactly a natural pairing with his own medical journey, Raban’s masterful prose makes it work.
The book ends rather abruptly as Raban leaves rehab for a rental home while his own house is being remodeled to meet his new needs. A brief editor’s note provides little additional enlightenment but drops a bombshell: When he died, Raban had been drafting a chapter about a son he had been recently getting to know. (Interestingly, his obituaries mention only one child, Julia.) That chapter, I’m sure, would have been a fascinating addition to Father and Son, and certainly fitting with its title. It’s a sign of Raban’s talent and powerful voice that, even in death, he leaves readers wanting more.