Are We Related?: The New Granta Book of the Family
A varied collection of writings on family ties impresses Ian Thomson
Are We Related? gathers some 30 personal memoirs and short stories from Granta on the vexed subject of the family. Included are pieces on divorce, alcoholism, sibling rivalry and, above all, parents. Inevitably, parents are the daily drama most powerfully present in the lives of their children; the influence endures even into adulthood. Several contributors touch on some point in childhood when innocence is left behind and doubts emerge about the grown-ups. In “Famous People”, Orhan Pamuk recollects his father’s abandonment of his mother in 1950s Istanbul. Bubble gum cards of Hollywood movie stars – the “famous people” of his title – compensate for the turmoil in his small world.
Conventionally, we like to blame our emotional difficulties on our parents. Yet we ignore the stanza that follows Philip Larkin‘s celebrated insight into Mum and Dad: “But they were fucked up in their turn . . .” In “Twins”, Jeremy Seabrook attributes his collapsed relationship with his twin brother to his mother’s pernicious divisiveness and favouritism. (“Separation has been, perhaps, the single biggest determining influence in my life.”) Yet we can only guess at his mother’s own history of loss and pain; her husband had tertiary syphilis and died.
The excruciating candour of Seabrook’s contribution contrasts with the wry comedy of Edmund White, who speculates in “The Merry Widow” that his homosexuality may have derived from his mother’s Blanche DuBois-like social pretensions and flamboyant wardrobe. In this bravura performance, White poses the question: do parents behave differently towards their baby boy (more rough and tumble, less coo)? Do parents help to create their child’s sexual orientation?
We know almost nothing about our children before they are born: all we know for sure is that they’ll change our lives for good. Most of us are adequate as parents. But Anna Pyasetskaya, in “The Lost Boys”, chronicles a heroic determination to locate the corpse of her soldier son killed in war-torn Chechnya in 1994. The piece is a marvel of unsparing lucidity. With other contributors, a bleak melancholy intrudes. Jackie Kay (pictured), in her semi-fictionalised “Big Milk”, describes the painful abandonment of a mixed-race child by her Scottish mother and its repercussions on her adult relationships. “I look into my mother’s house through the letterbox. It is dark. I can’t see a single thing.” In another excellent memoir, “Alive, Alive-Oh!”, Diana Athill vividly recreates the awfulness of undergoing an abortion back in the 1950s and the subsequent social shame. The piece is written in the third person so that it reads like fiction – a device, perhaps, to distance the author from painful memories.
Graham Smith and AM Homes each write about forms of filial devotion and exasperation. David Goldblatt, in “Doing the Paperwork”, evokes his eccentric, tax-evading father and his shocking murder by a pair of carpet fitters. The rivalry and hidden rage that shadow some mother-daughter relationships is explored most entertainingly by Linda Grant in her account of shopping trips taken with her amnesiac mother. “She who had once been a helper would now be the helped,” she comments ruefully of the once-exemplary woman.
“Death is part of family life,” Liz Jobey writes in her introduction, “and we all have to deal with it.” John Lanchester, in “Early Retirement”, movingly registers the shock he felt at the premature death of his father, “one of the best men I have known”. The piece captures brilliantly the bewilderment attendant on a parent’s death; suddenly the world is divided into those who have fathers, and those who do not.
This wonderfully varied volume, the fruit of selections made from more than 50 issues of Granta between 1995 and the present, introduces families both happy and unhappy, well-regulated and disreputable. Are We Related? is just the ticket, really, for the tinsel season, when rows may flare round the Christmas turkey.
Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica is published by Faber.