I watch Douglas Galbraith, slightly awkward and somewhat hesitant, field questions about his first novel, which has attracted what the trade refers to routinely as a mammoth advance.
It is summer 2003, somewhere in Fife, and Galbraith is breaking into his home, frantic about the whereabouts of his two sons.
It is some time, somewhere in 2011, and Galbraith taps out the following sentence: "When I think of myself as a murderer, I am suffused with a deep sense of peace."
So how did it come to this? How did the bright young thing become the dark, brooding presence in an unnamed room with only the light of a computer as company? How did Galbraith come to ponder killing another human being, mercifully restricting himself to thought not action?
The explanation is simple, the journey more complex. Galbraith's Japanese wife, Tomoko, left the family home when the author was on a research trip to London. She flew back to her homeland with their two young sons. Galbraith has not see them since, his contact limited to snatched telephone calls and photographs. My Son, My Son is the distilled product of years of pain.
It is important, first, to state what My Son, My Son is not. It is not a further addition to misery literature and it is not a howl of rage. There is much sadness, much anger in Galbraith's reminiscence but there is much more, too. The author takes his personal circumstance and makes it the starting point for quiet rumination and strong assertion. There is a spellbinding, vexing essay on "justified" child-killing; a memoir of a young father; a gentle, mysterious account of an unravelling of a marriage; and a careful examination of how fathers can find it almost impossible to reclaim their children from foreign lands.
The masculine noun is important. Galbraith makes several comments about gender that are sure to cause controversy, but his experience testifies persuasively to a bias against fathers. The reaction to his loss by the authorities would make a sloth look hyperactive. He is brushed off, too, by a policeman making early, perfunctory inquiries who tells Galbraith that the children will be all right – after all, they are with their mother.
This, of course, is a source of deep anxiety rather than consolation to the bereft father. The legal routes prove impassable and Galbraith is reduced to subterfuge to try to find his children. This involves him posing as an editor and contacting his wife under a pseudonym. Fragments of information, extraordinarily precious to a forlorn father, are extracted but contact is kept to long-distance phone calls. The loss echoes eerily down the line.
This, then, is a book of grief that nods to gender politics, the inadequacy of law, and to the culture of Japan. It speaks of grand themes but it is beautifully, exquisitely a personal testimony. "This is everything to me, nothing to you," writes Galbraith, almost in a confessional aside to the reader. He is right in that no-one, without the benefit of awful experience, can empathise with his pain. He is gloriously wrong, however, in the wider context. Galbraith's brilliance as a writer and the essence of the subject makes this a powerful, accessible work.
"Beyond sex and religion there may be no subject on which we are more persistently stupid and dishonest than loss," he writes. Galbraith suffers from a peculiar form of loss. His children are not missing, they are not dead. But the knowledge that they are alive and living in an unspecified location in Japan means Galbraith suffers a daily torture from which there is no moving on, no resolution.
He is brutally honest about the effects of this trauma of separation. It is what makes Galbraith, a middle-class, educated Scot, hate with a primitive passion. As an earthquake hits Japan, he watches a victim being carried dead from the rubble. He believes he recognises the socks. Could it be his former wife? Could he soon be asked "to repossess" his children? His hope suddenly fades. "They were someone else's feet, sadly," he states.
The writer accepts this transformation as a by-product of painful experience, the way joy is a direct derivative of love. Stripped of the most fundamental right, even need, to have a connection with his children, he becomes more open to hate as he tries to close himself off to pain.
Galbraith is damaged. The precise lines of his prose are marked with the recurring dents of his dislocation from those he loves. His frankness, his bemusement, his search for how to understand what is incomprehensible to him produces a memoir and a meditation that is provocative, humorous, stimulating and profoundly affecting.
The accomplished style of the book brings back that image of the promising writer with the large advance in his pocket and the world at his feet. But something was broken on the night Galbraith came back to a home empty of his family, his sons' pyjamas lying discarded on the floor. That fracture has never been healed. It has produced a great, unsettling book. It has given the artist wings even as it has crippled the man.