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Published on: 08/14/15 11:02 AM

Book review: Are We Related? The New Granta Book of the Family


All in the family

Are We Related ? /The New Granta Book of the Family/Edited by Liz Jobey is a 2009 book but I only just came across it. And I’m so glad I did.

Two out of three people belong to difficult families and if one of these two happens to be a writer, it becomes fertile ground for her/his future magnum opus.

Tobias Wolff’s `This Boy’s Life` springs to mind here, as does the story of a pair of twins who grew up in a house by the Meenachil river.

This book has a zinger of a title, one that draws readers into its complex fold. And a zinger of title story, Are We Related by Linda Grant. The aforementioned reader is sure to gulp in commiseration, empathy or sympathy as she reads Grant‘s honest account of her mother, 78 years old and suffering from Multi infarct dementia (MID). This makes her often forgetful (Do you know I’ve been diagnosed with memory loss, she keeps asking people) cranky and on that slippery road to a loss of control in every aspect of her life. After a long and tiring day out shopping (where she chooses the most expensive clothes ever, totally unconscious of doing so) she turns to her companions, her daughter and her grandson, and asks `Are we related?` Grant keeps her tone even through the account but it’s hard to miss the undertone of dislike that weaves itself throughthe tale.

Another story that catches one by the throat is Jeremy Seabrook’s Twins, chronicling how his needy and manipulating mother kept Jeremy far, both physically and emotionally, from the one person in the whole world who could have and should have been his companion in arms: his twin. The twins are illegitimate and born into a household trip-mined by secrets, lies and much misery. It takes all they have to survive; getting out of this emotional trap is not a choice for them.

Hilary Mantel’s Destroyed is deceptively light in tone, barely hiding much inner tumult. Urvashi Butalia’s Blood is a story I have read before, the writer’s discovery of an uncle who stayed back in Pakistan after Partition, converted to Islam, lost much, gained much, told with affection and tinged with regret.Ali Smith’s tribute to her father is like quite no other tribute.

Chimamanda Ngozi Aadichie’s The Grief of Strangers keeps us thinking of the enigmatic young woman who meets would-be suitors in cafes all the while wondering whether it’s the right moment to tell them about her tragic past, long after the story has ended. Raymond Carver’s telling of the `situation at home, ` of love that runs a trammeled course, is masterly for its characteristic understatement.

Hanif Kureishi’s The Umbrella takes all the bottled acrimony of a divorced couple and channels it into that most unlikely object, an umbrella. In Orhan Pamuk’s story Famous People, atmosphere effortlessly overpowers the story, which is about two young boys who watch but baulk at acknowledging their father walk away from them.

Blake Morrison’s Bicycle Thieves uses the plot device of a man trying to retrieve his young son’s stolen bike from a low income housing estate in London, to open a window to another kind of life.

If that was a moving story, Like An Episode of LA Law by A M Homs is the jewel in this set. She sets out a series of questions directed at her biological father, questions that reveal her tremendous pain, sense of loss, insecurity, deprivation, vulnerability and mixed with it all, the underlying hope that he will step up and acknowledge her, making her world right again.

The humour is mostly grim; the stories are told with deliberate distance that does not for a minute mask the intense pain being suffered by the protagonist. There are huge swells of tumultuous interchanges, there are gigantic sulks, there is suppression, repression, there is `energetic reconciliation` (Kureishi), there is visceral hatred, and fractured love. In short, everything that a family builds up as they go along.

And once you are done with the troubled memoirs of this book, you have but two roads to take. Either you shake your head ruefully, the thought `There but for the grace of god go I` floats into your head, and you go out to join your loving, untroubled family.

Or, you shake your head sadly and say `So others too, walk the same road`, and having learned something about how to survive difficult families, you rejoin your own.

Are We Relatedfamilyfamily talesGrantashort stories

Sheila Kumar • August 14, 2015

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