Are We Related?, Edited by Liz Jobey

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The Independent Culture

With the Christmas tradition of explosive rows, Granta could hardly have chosen better timing for its "book of the family". As George Eliot wrote , we are so often tied "by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every movement." Tim Parks points out, meanwhile, that not so long ago psychotherapists were arguing that some mental health problems, including schizophrenia, were "related to the family relationships surrounding the sufferers."

The nuclear and now not-so nuclear unit with its conflicts, loyalties and intense feelings has always generated rich material for authors. Putting the microscope to one's past, dissecting the present dynamic, goes some way towards grappling with that fundamental question: who am I?

Selecting from more than 50 Granta issues from 1995 onwards, editor Liz Jobey has carefully balanced fiction and non-fiction, the comic with the tragic. There is first-rate writing from - among others - Hilary Mantel, John McGahern, Raymond Carver, Hanif Kureishi and Graham Swift. Urvashi Butalia's "Blood" takes the personal and contextualises it. In her measured but poignant account she shows how the broader issues of Partition in India were quietly mirrored in her divided family. In complete contrast, barely suppressed rage and sorrow colour David Goldblatt's "Doing the Paperwork". His subject is his father and his murder by carpet-fitters.

Within the anthology are familiar scenarios from sibling rivalry to dealing with ageing parents. The mad woman is no longer in the attic but at our kitchen table, tucking into the turkey. There are babies who change the balance within a family, turning the neglected partner into another kind of child, and babies who nearly kill the mother without being born.

Here are partners whose marriages fail and feel sad for one another; others simply want to "pulverise" their ex. Inching along in school-run traffic, Zoe in Helen Simpson's short story "Early One Morning" contemplates the compromises of full-time motherhood. At the same time the narrator in Blake Morrison's "Bicycle Thieves" feels acutely his failure to match up to his own father, with his blundering attempts to restore his son's stolen bike. Some fathers weren't that great but time has revealed what their inadequacy cost them. Mothers who seemed wonderful once were so – it seems now – at someone else's expense.

Jobey comments on how "life-writing" has become "the fastest-growing genre in non-fiction." But memoir doesn't have to be all misery and malice. AM Homes - the offspring of a married man and his young lover - was given up for adoption. In her playful "Like an Episode of LA Law", she recalls how she tried to get her biological father to supply the results of his DNA test. He refused and she imagined how a deposition might run: nine pages of direct questions which, despite lack of answers, imply plenty. "How old was Ms Ballman when you met her? How would you describe her physically - her appearance? Did you know that she was a minor? What were the circumstances of that meeting?"

Both Jeremy Seabrook and Edmund White grew up the devoted gay sons of manipulative single women, and see something of their mothers in themselves. Yet Seabrook in "Twins" appears unable to reconcile himself to a painful lack of closeness with his (now dead) brother - a situation engineered by his mother. White, on the other hand, in "The Merry Widow" makes us smile and squirm equally at the Southern Gothic of his upbringing.

White's mother Delilah was a hard-working psychologist with a taste for mink and highballs. Obese, she wore a girdle - "a medieval device" called the Merry Widow - which Delilah insisted her son lace up. What an image it conjures - "her hair... wild, as brittle and blown-up as a tumbleweed... her pale face... featureless and shiny" as she groaned in pain. White adds that "There was no provision for wearing panties under the girdle."

Black humour leavens the trials life throws at us. In "Are We Related?", Linda Grant steers her increasingly muddled mother through the last days of independence before dementia forces her into an old people's home. It's both touching and funny. Hilary Mantel's "Destroyed" has her usual light touch, expressing her girlhood dislocation (her father leaving; her stepfather moving in) through two hapless mongrels adopted by the family. Introverted Victor has a breakdown; Mike chews 101 Hints on Dog Care until only four hints remain, goes blind and mad as a March hare. "The trouble with Mike was this: we had become middle-class, but our dog had not."