Ties that bind and tear

Ties that bind and tear

Ties that bind and tear

Are we related? The new granta book of the family Edited by Liz Jobey 2009, £20Towards the end of his life, my father made the disconcerting announcement that we all choose our parents, no matter how painful the choice might seem to be. And with that revelation he stopped battling the angry ghost who had sired him and became happy or at least much less tormented than he had ever been before.
The stories in this wonderful collection are all concerned in one way or another with the family ties that bind us and tear us apart: children and their parents; siblings and their rivalry; husbands and wives; and the struggle to deal with the absence of those who have died.

I suppose that if you come from a really happy family, then you can walk out the door and into your adult life with hardly a backward look, but if the nest in which you were reared was complicated, then you often need to try to understand what was going on before you can even find the door, let alone turn its handle.
There are good relatives among these pages, but they come alongside some dangerous, duplicitous, unlovely and seemingly unlovable ones.

Here comes Edmund White’s terrifying ‘Merry Widow’ of a mother, “who thought her name, Delilah, was so alluring that it made her a natural for a talk show”; David Goldblatt’s perfidious father, who ran an organisation called Red Stripe, the “only hands-on spanking club in Great Britain,” and who was murdered in his flat by two carpet fitters who had noticed the row of “soft-drink bottles with the tops cut off... all overflowing with pound coins and 50 pence pieces.”

Then there is Linda Grant’s mother, who doesn’t forget to be rude to her daughters, even though everything else is lost in a mist of Alzheimer’s.

I read many of these stories as they appeared in Granta magazine between 1995 and 2009 and it is interesting to come back to them now, like coming home after a long absence. Some have gathered intensity over the years, while others have drifted slightly out of focus, or out of my particular focus. I remembered Robyn Davidson’s account of her ‘marriage’ to an old Aborigine called Eddie, but I had forgotten quite how funny it was and how the love and acceptance of this community of chaotic and derelict people is as important to her as she is to them.
When I first read Justine Picardie’s painfully honest chronicle of her attempt to come to terms with the loss of her beloved sister, I had not experienced such a loss myself and so I didn’t fully understand her quest, or the delicate act of uncertain faith she manages to perform when she learns to carry her sister within the enclosed space of her mind, so that, in a way, death makes no difference.

This time round, I had a better appreciation of Diana Athill’s blow-by-blow account of an unexpected pregnancy, cut short by a miscarriage which almost killed her. When she emerges from an emergency operation and realises that she is not dead she is overjoyed, “because the truth was that she loved being alive” and this fact becomes, as it were, the bonus from the strange journey to the edge of motherhood that she has just made.

In a postscript to ‘Alive, Alive –Oh!’, Athill explains that she wrote it in the third person because “the woman to whom this happened, though not exactly a stranger — I knew her well — was no longer me.”

Having just finished Hilary Mantel’s immersion in Tudor courtly life, Wolf Hall, it was fascinating to be reminded of her other voice as a spiky, angry little girl growing up in Derbyshire in a house peopled with family ghosts who all had filed teeth and malevolent intentions. And it was a pleasure to return to Raymond Carver’s ‘Call Me if You Need Me’, in which a group of wild horses emerges out of the early morning mist in a garden, watched by two people who are having to face the fact that their marriage cannot be saved. Carver doubted the success of the story and it was not published during his lifetime, but it’s as good as some of his best.

There is quite a bit of fiction as well as autobiographical memoir, but all the stories share the same intensity of recollection and just as Diana Athill chose to put her old self into a third person, so Anne Enright, John McGahern, Graham Swift and the clutch of other very fine writers who are included here are so intimate with their subjects you feel sure they must be related to them, if not by blood, then in some other way.