This anthology of family memoirs has
been selected from more than 50 issues of the literary magazine Granta
between 1995 and 2009. It includes 27 contributions, all by established
writers, some fictional but largely autobiographical. Such was the general
quality of the writing that had it been twice as long I would not have
skipped a page – sometimes a reviewer’s temptation.
Tolstoy’s oft-quoted remark that
“all happy families resemble one another but each unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way” is entirely false. As this anthology demonstrates,
all family relationships – and mercifully, there are a few happy reminiscences
recorded here – have their own uniquely peculiar fascination. No two
scenarios are the same; variations on the theme of domestic affections
– and disaffections – are infinite. As Editor Liz Jobey says in her
introduction, “For a writer, the difficulties of family relationships
are fertile territory.” You can say that again.
In such a varied collection it is hard
to select preferences. A fine balance of black humour, intensity of
observation, originality of angle and a tone of compassion rather than
anger, finally got my casting vote. A L Kennedy, writing about her closeness
to her grandfather, a boxer, in “A Blow to the Head”, managed to
include much lore about the boxing fraternity – the wounds and the glory
– in this affectionate tribute without overloading the reader. Tim Parks,
in “Paolo”, conveys the whole mad, ludicrous world of his Italian
brother-in-law, a paranoid schizophrenic, in a few pages. In “Our
Nicky’s Heart” Graham Swift reflects on his younger brother’s
fatal car crash with its anguished aftermath: removing his heart to
give hope to a middle-aged woman. To protect his (middle-aged) mother,
who would gladly have given her own heart to save her son he lies, pretending
Nicky’s heart has gone to a younger woman.
Some of the stories tend to read like
feature-writing on current issues rather than to miniature works of
art. Blake Morrison’s “Bicycle Thieves”, an account of trying
to retrieve his son’s stolen bicycle, belongs in this category: fluent,
lively and unmemorable. So does Hanif Kureishi’s “The Umbrella”,
a fictional story of a separated couple fighting about their two small
sons. Linda Grant’s “Are We Related?”, about her mother’s dementia,
joins an increasing army of similar accounts in the daily press. Anna
Pyasetskaya’s (translated) story, “The Lost Boys”, about searching
for the body of her son, a conscripted young Russian soldier in Chechnya,
feels part of the daily sorrowful diet of front-line journalism.
With so much poignant real-life material,
the fictional pieces in this anthology lack punch. Raymond Carver’s
“Call Me if You Need Me”, about a disintegrating marriage, is skilful
and polished but somehow out of place. Adichie’s “The Grief of Strangers”,
reads as a random chapter in her novels about Nigeria.
Inevitably, childhood trauma is the
springboard for some contributors: Graham Smith’s “Albert Smith”
relives the moment when his father, ordered by the divorce court to
leave the family home, walks out of his children’s lives forever.
Similarly, Orhan Pamuk, in “Famous People”, recounts the day
he watched his father pack up and disappear off to Paris. A M Homes,
in “Like an Episode of LA Law”, subjects her father to a relentless
inquisition, interrogating him as if he were in the dock and she were
The two chapters that remain in the
memory are the bleakest: Edmund White’s “The Merry Widow” and
Jeremy Seabrook’s “Twins”. Both beautifully written, they are
also a horrifying testimony to the baleful, lasting influence of a mother’s
warped personality. White’s mother, obese, an alcoholic and over-intimate,
traps her son into an exhausting emotional imprisonment from which he
finally escapes into unstable homosexual relationships. In “Twins”,
Seabrook mourns his identical twin brother whom he never got to know
or love. Although they grew up in the same house for 18 years
until he left for university (his brother had already become an apprentice),
his mother, with perverse, deliberate cruelty, ensured her sons’ emotional
alienation from each other. He too, unable to escape this formidable
matriarch, became a homosexual; after her death he and his brother,
both paralysed by childhood roles, never spoke to each other again.
Both accounts echo with absentee fathers.
In a recent interview the writer Ian
McEwan debated whether anti-war novels such as All Quiet on the
Western Front or Catch-22 had ever saved a single soldier’s
life. Will reading this anthology alter a reader’s domestic relationships
for the better? I would simply suggest that the best of these stories
will enlarge a receptive reader’s imaginative sympathy; if nothing
else, they provide rich food for pondering the lives of others.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.