Try to Tell the Story

Try to Tell the Story

A Memoir

By David Thomson

Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375412134, 224pp.

Publication Date: February 3, 2009


From one of our most celebrated film critics and historians now comes a beautifully written memoir about his first eighteen years, growing up as an only child in south London in the midforties and late fifties. Told with elegance and restraint, partly from the point of view of a child, partly from that of an adult, it is the story of a lonely, stammering boy cared for by a matriarchy of his mother, grandmother, and an upstairs tenant, Miss Davis, to which he adds an imaginary sister, Sally. At the heart of this story is David Thomson’s profound sadness at being abandoned by a cold and distant father who visits only on weekends and keeps, as Thomson later discovers, another household.

Thomson gives a vivid picture of London in the aftermath of the war, whether it is his grandmother bringing him to a street corner to see Churchill or the bombed-out houses that still smelled of acrid smoke where, though forbidden, he played. Movies became his great escape, and the worlds revealed in Henry V, Red River, The Third Man, and Citizen Kane were part of his rich imaginative life, one that gained him a scholarship to public and eventually film school. And though his father could never tell his son he loved him, he spent the first part of vacations with him and he came back most weekends, taking Thomson to everything from boxing to cricket matches. But as Thomson admits, “I am still, years after his death, bewildered and pained by my father, and trying to love him—or find his love for me.”

Try to Tell the Story is a haunting and unsentimental look at the fragility of family relationships, a memoir of growing up in the absence of a full-time father, with movies and sports heroes as one’s only touchstones.

About the Author

David Thomson, author of “Have You Seen . . . ?” and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, is a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Movieline, The New Republic, and Salon. He lives in San Francisco.

Praise For Try to Tell the Story

Try to Tell the Story is a fine book, modest and self-effacing but also forthright and uncompromising.”
–Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“At heart, Thomson’s memoir is an attempt to reckon with his father’s semi-abandonment, and underneath its conversational, sometimes terse voice, there is a choking anguish.”
–Peter Terzian, Los Angeles Times

“Moving and provocative . . . A tribute to the gentler members of his family, an attempt to understand his father . . . and a vital exploration of how England, America, and the arts–not just film but literature and music as well–turned him from a . . . stammering schoolboy into an interpreter extraordinaire.”
–Kerry Fried, Newsday

“A renowned film critic and historian, a novelist and occasional screenwriter . . . He has already staked a career on his ability to recount the lives of others, often with breathtaking concision . . . So it’s that much more satisfying to realize that Thomson has given us one of his strongest works by narrowing his life-compressing focus down to little old him. A visionary critic . . . a superb memoirist.”
–José Teodoro, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Leave the tidy endings to Hollywood. Thomson has given us a tender, unsentimental picture of his youth, with all its messiness and mystery intact, and a reader can’t ask for more than that.”
–Michelle Vellucci, Columbia Journalism Review

“It is [Thomson’s] absolute refusal to indulge in self-pity that makes Try to Tell the Story a refreshing contribution to the field of memoirs . . . Thomson has chosen to tell his story as it is–complex, real, and yet, in the end, merely and courageously human.”
–Rene Denfield, The Oregonian