Likeness, fathers, sons, a portrait, by David MacFarlane delivers exactly what the title promises but in an unexpected way. Likeness is not a straight-ahead memoir. Much depends on the portrait, its effect on the author, the heartbreaking loss of his son, and the resultant structure in which the book is written.

Canadian painter John Hartman, working on a project depicting 40 Canadian writers, chose MacFarlane and his hometown of Hamilton as one of his subjects.

David MacFarlane above Hamilton, 2014, 60 x 66”, was completed in the same year McFarlane’s son Blake was diagnosed with an acute form of lymphoblastic leukemia. The portrait found its way onto a wall in the living room of the MacFarlane house. Blake’s four-and-a-half-year battle for life became intermixed with the silent insistence for self-examination the giant image demanded.


MacFarlane spent hours looking at the painting and began to see not only brushstrokes that formed his enormous face, but the memories unlocked by the juxtaposition of shapes and colours. He decided to try to enter the imaginary space of the painting and write in the same way Hartman captured light with his paints.

MacFarlane structured his book into four parts, each with 18 segments—which amounted to four rounds of golf. Each round touched in varying degrees on repeated themes: growing up in Hamilton in the 60s, 70s, and 80s; details about his school life; the Tiger Cats; his father and his medical practice; the swimming pool with patio lanterns and his parents’ swanky friends enjoying cocktails. His youth was a time of unconscious white privilege and stability which was contrasted by Blake and his observations on the reality and differences of his life. And the haunting image of the woman in the thin brown coat, a mother vanishing into a blizzard, New Year’s Day, 2018, the day her son died.

The dabbing of memories upon memories in unexpected and random ways was sometimes hard to follow. Anyone expecting a linear memoir could find this structure frustrating. I chose to see the book as a golf game of memory: hit the ball, follow the flight, describe where it lands; hit again. Each landing is a dab of memory much as Hartmann’s portrait is the layering of colour. The completed book is a portrait of a life in words. A Likeness, not a photograph.

The layering of memories forms a protective layer over the sorrow and grief that MacFarlane, his family—any family in this situation—feels at the loss of a child. Ultimately the book is about grief and loss, memories, and the way we hold and record the light of all we have known in the cosmic scream that is life– no matter how ephemeral.


Pub Date: 2021

ISBN: 9780385693714

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

Image: Doubleday Canada