Three months after her father died, Canadian author and artist Kyo Maclear took a DNA test from a genealogy website. Her resulting memoir, Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets, could have taken its subtitle from the test’s disclaimer: “You may discover unanticipated facts about yourself or your family.” Nothing was more unanticipated than the discovery that her beloved father, journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, was not her biological father.
Maclear is able to piece together the facts of her biological father’s identity, even the names and locations of her half siblings. But she knows she is unable to uncover the truth of her origins—the hows and whys of her birth—without the help of her mother, her father’s unruly, Japanese ex-wife. And that is where her quandary lies, because her mother is firmly rooted in the present with no interest in reconstructing the past. Furthermore, even if her mother wanted to tell Kyo the entire story of her origins, her ability to piece it together fades as she gradually succumbs to dementia.
As Maclear probes more deeply into her the intertwined story of her three parents—her mother, her father, and her biological father—more questions are raised than can possibly be answered. What is identity? What obligations do we have to people who happen to share our DNA? As her mother’s memory fades, these questions become deeper, more personal. Reconciliation seems impossible to Maclear, though, when the other person will not or cannot break the lifelong silence. Challenging the idea that our life story follows an arc, Maclear instead posits life as a free-form construction of patches of memory, actions and silences.
Maclear’s writing is poetic in the best sense. Using the image of her mother’s wild, rambling garden as a foundation, Maclear examines these questions in detail, without proposing a pat answer to any of them because, ultimately, they are unanswerable. Instead, Maclear allows the reader to struggle with them as she did, granting her audience the space and silence to reconcile the gaps and secrets in their own lives.