There is a strange duality inherent to being a non-Indigenous Australian. A sense of dividedness, of having come – however distantly – from elsewhere. It manifests itself in various ways: a particular itch to travel, a lively curiosity about family trees, childhoods spent in the expectation that you will probably leave at some point, at least for a while.

For postwar generations, before air travel closed the vast distances between continents, leaving Australia was a far more difficult business – as Louisa Deasey’s father, Denison, found to his cost in 1947. His £100 ticket to London involved six weeks at sea, in cramped, windowless quarters – plus a bout of tuberculosis for his troubles.

There was a social cost, too. In the course of living a rich and joyful life of writing and artistic friendships in France, Denison was rumoured to have squandered “three fortunes”. When he returned to Australia, full of ideas for books and magazine articles, he was often met with indifference from editors and publishers. At the time, a certain insularity and conservatism prevailed, a heady suspicion of artists, Europeanness and anyone who didn’t quite conform.

This attitude, Deasey suggests, played a large part in what happened next. Denison died when she was six, leaving her with nothing but a few scant memories of an ailing, ageing man. With a mother tightly wound in a “pain and guilt so taut she might snap”, and Denison’s personal papers sold off to the State Library of Victoria, Deasey’s internalised understanding of her father was drawn largely from family mythology and a couple of eulogies: dark hints about a man who was “remarkable” but also “wild” and “inexplicable”; a writer who never finished what he started; a restless wanderer who “made bad choices and lost out in life”. Someone to be regarded with “disapproval and shame”.

Louisa Deasey … ‘Perhaps I’d been searching for Paris my entire life.’

Louisa Deasey … ‘Perhaps I’d been searching for Paris my entire life.’

Similarly restless, similarly determined to write, Deasey strove to prove – to herself, and to her mother – that she was not in other ways her father’s daughter. However, as quickly becomes apparent in A Letter From Paris, the question of who Denison Deasey turned out to be far more complex than family whisperings ever allowed.

The titular letter arrived in the form of a Facebook message in 2016. Siblings in France had found letters about Denison written by their grandmother, Michelle Chomé, when she was 20. Chomé and Denison had apparently fallen in love, and the family were hoping Deasey might have some photos or letters from their grandmother.

The hunt for Chomé prompted Deasey to confront the pain of her family’s past and delve into her father’s papers. She becomes captivated by his life story, his lively, engaging literary style, the eerie parallels between his interests and her own. She discovers a man with “intense” powers of observation, with an “instinctive, impulsive boldness”. A man who spent time with artists Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker, writers Dylan Thomas, Richard Aldington and Alister Kershaw. The shame she’d carried around for decades gradually melts away, to be replaced by a sense of identification, of pride.

Meanwhile, the family in France take a lively interest in Deasey’s search, assisting her wherever possible. She flies over to meet them, and becomes acquainted with the places her father loved. She is instantly smitten with the language, the culture, the buildings and the history: “Perhaps I’d been searching for Paris my entire life.”

Deasey’s raptures can grow slightly wearying. The book practically vibrates with the unbridled enthusiasm of Europhilia (“I. Am. In. Paris … I / Am / In / Paris”) and the deep pleasures of finding a home in a country you’ve never lived in. Unfortunately, her delight in her own personal journey (“I was finally coming back to being me,”) often comes at the cost of maintaining the reader’s interest. Vague adjectives (“perfect”; “beautiful”) litter the text, describing everything from scenery to hotel rooms to – mystifyingly – a folding tray table on a train, with no indication of what such perfection or beauty might look like.

Yet her journey of self-discovery is not, in the end, the beating heart of this book. Neither is the love story of Denison and Chomé, or even Deasey’s blossoming relationship with her deceased father. The most affecting story here is that of the story itself: the tensions between what is written and what is spoken, and who controls the narrative. “Verba volant / Scripta manent runs the Latin proverb chosen for the epigraph: “Spoken words fly away / Only what is written remains.” A Letter from Paris is a sobering reminder of the ease with which our stories can be warped by the prevailing attitudes of the time – and the crucial importance of archives in the preservation of lives and literature.

A Letter from Paris: A True Story of Hidden Art Lost Romance and Family Reclaimed is published by Scribe. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.