In praise of Father the God

THE GRANTA BOOK OF THE FAMILY, Granta Books £15.99; Against the sad stories of damage are testimonies to how children survive

JANE AUSTEN's nave young character Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, confesses at one point that she doesn't much enjoy reading history because there are so few women in it. Had she tried tackling Granta, she might have felt the same. For too long its idea of what constituted good modern writing seemed overly tied up with a Boys Own taste for bullets whizzing past the ear. Women writers sneaked in if they were old and venerable, or could prove they'd been in a war once, or had had interesting experiences of degradation. This necessarily left out an awful lot of writers. But now times are changing, and Granta seems to be abandoning its extreme notions of masculine/feminine in favour of something more human, more inclusive. Since this is an anthology of pieces on family life, and since women do crop up in families, it's splendid to see that in this volume the male writers outnumber the women by only about two to one. This is real progress.

The traditional Granta bias shows in the number of pieces devoted to fathers, written by both sons and daughters. It's a good time, perhaps, for looking at the old heroes afresh, for as traditional notions of Father the God begin to crack and crumble, writers can move in and start to ask questions about why some fathers still feel they have to behave in such bizarre ways. The tone of voice ranges from wryly tender (Angela Carter) to comic and elegiac (Blake Morrison) to sparely realist (Raymond Carver). Some of these pieces are culled from other anthologies, some from the recent Granta issue on the family. All of them will bear re-reading, sounding different and provo-cative in this altered proximity, gripping and jostling each other like relatives at a funeral with old scores to settle.

The coolest, toughest and least intimate writing is perhaps that of Beverly Lowry in "Patricide." She's a journalist investigating the murder of Lennie Dutton, in Oklahoma, by his two teenage sons, after he sexually assaulted his small daughter. Her hard prose doesn't let you get close to the people she describes: "In rural areas, middle-aged women tend to fall into one of two categories: the chunk and the rail. The chunk puts on weight and acquires a bosom, hips, dimples, a double chin, a rolling gait; she has a girlish look and loves her food. The rail shrinks, her skin clings to her bones, her behind flattens, her neck turns into a column of folds." That's cold to the point of contempt.

By contrast, Hugh Collins in "Hard Man" begins with that sort of toughness and peels it away, layer by layer, to try and discover what led him into a life of violent crime culminating in prison. He knows his father only as a front: "He is surrounded by four screws and stands by the grave, silent. Everyone around him - the family, the friends - is weeping. My father is still. His face, covered with scars, doesn't reveal a thing. I study the face and will remember it for ever: it is hard, like a stone.

Wullie, the hard man, people say. Yes, my da, the hard man."

Later, the son acts out his identification: "I was a very powerful man, and I was powerful because I was dangerous, and I was dangerous because I was prepared to be, and everyone knew I was fully capable of being so very, very violent. I had become my father." Much later, the son reaches deeper: "My father was not a hard man ... He was a drunk, poncing money from a burnt-out prostitute half his age. He was not someone I wanted to be. What I wanted to be was a lie. It didn't exist. But just look at what the lie had created."

Set against these sad stories of damage are testimonies to how children survive and muddle through. William Wharton provides a sweet tale of how a beloved son, dead in a car crash caused by field burning, out of control, engulfing a motorway, returns to advise his father how to cope. Wharton un-ashamedly records how tears get mixed up with uneaten pizza dinners, how in the midst of grief you have to book plane tickets and pack a clean shirt, how the mystical experience that heals and alters him returns him to the physical intensity of childhood, its powerlessness and vulnerability: "It's as if I've been knocked down in a football game, clipped, and I can't get my breath for several seconds. Then I can, and begin to sob with such violence that I almost throw up. I fight for breath between sobs, but that is only the outside. Inside I am knowing things I have no way of knowing."

It is worth buying the book for this extraordinary piece alone, and for that of Candia McWilliam. The latter's meditation on her parents beautifully matches loving observation of people to dedicated concentration on getting the language just right. This seems especially reparative in terms of the violence it deals with, as, for example, McWilliam's mother rescues the victim of an attack: "The woman had hair the sheepish gold of the chiropodist's wool my mother wound around her two broken toes so that she could wear winklepickers ... My mother took off her own headscarf as though it was too formal and took the older, shorter woman in her arms." McWilliam never puts a foot wrong.

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