Granduncle Bertie tells the life story of Englishman Albert Smithson, known as Bertie, and his family.
Bertie’s grandniece Sarah, who illustrates children’s books that Bertie writes, has been asked to co-write Bertie’s memoirs. Over the course of weeks, they meet to reminisce. Bertie speaks about reluctantly becoming the family patriarch, finding a meaningful job after a forced retirement, dealing with health crises, and grappling with theological questions of good and evil.
Sarah, who narrates the beginning and end of most chapters, sums up what might seem a source of conflict between her and Bertie: “He’s straight, conservative (with a small c), he always votes Labour; and I’m a gay female, pretty alternative, and I vote Green.” And yet, they easily discuss sometimes-difficult family history, with Sarah asking thoughtful questions. In fact, they recount when Sarah came out to the family. She was understandably nervous, but after a brief conversation with his wife, Bertie is immediately accepting.
Bertie is an intriguing, complex character. While he reluctantly assumes the role of family head, he proves fit for the job, helping turn his parents’ old house into the family gathering place and strategizing ways to bring wayward family members back to the fold. He considers himself “unspiritual” from an early age, yet keenly discusses deep spiritual matters with his family’s priest and a retired black bus driver nicknamed “The Professor,” who knew Bertie’s mother and who mysteriously reappears throughout Bertie’s life.
The novel is more of Bertie “telling” his life story than “showing” it, which lowers some of the excitement and narrative tension. Additionally, both Sarah’s narration and Bertie’s reminiscing are in present tense, a technique that at times leads to confusion. And while some of Bertie’s memories are compelling, they feel more like stand-alone stories, unconnected to each other except by his retelling.
Still, readers will find a very human tale, told by an engaging character with questions to consider well after reading.