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Look back with clarity

How did your family make you feel when you were growing up? And what judgments would you pass on them now? Victoria Neumark finds hindsight is a tricky business

The Sunlight on the Garden

By Elizabeth Speller

Granta pound;14.99

The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

Virago pound;7.99

Stone Cradle

By Louise Doughty

Simon and Schuster pound;12.99

Memory is the trickiest mine for a writer. As a literary agent once said to me: "Your heart sinks when someone writes in a covering letter, 'All my friends tell me I've had such an interesting life'."

"The sunlight on the garden Hardens and grows cold, We cannot cage the minute Within its nets of gold," wrote Louis MacNeice in his poignant poem, the title of which Elizabeth Speller has borrowed for her memoir of life with mental illness. MacNeice was writing about the impossibility of pouring real life into fixed narratives, the difficulty of forming final judgments on ourselves or other people: "When all is told We cannot ask for pardon."

Speller, in scrupulously trying to avoid punishing judgments about what seems to have been a horrific mother-daughter relationship - and one, moreover, which left the writer herself prone to terrible depressions for which she has been hospitalised - sadly leaves most of the emotional flavouring out of her account of growing up in a middle-class English family in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a family life permeated with loneliness, but never explicitly so, as it staggers from accounts of ancestors who ran early London department stores to Hungarian countesses, suffragettes and country manor houses, swimming in flooded gravel pits and bringing up children in empty Lincolnshire.

By contrast, American Jeannette Walls's rackety account of her rackety family whizzes and jolts and rumbles along, all emotions firing. Her parents were hippies; dad from an abusive hillbilly family, mother from a posh western dynasty. For years they and their four children lived on the lam all over the south-west US, always starting off well, and always leaving with debts unpaid and dad's alcoholism and gambling out of control.

But there was lots of love, constant supplies of art materials, books and maths problems in candle-lit slums, immense determination among the siblings to pull through, and a kind of salvation as one by one they left their parents to come to New York and make their fortunes.

Three out of the four of them managed; one has disappeared. Whereas scenes were rare in Speller's upbringing, they exploded across the landscape of Walls's infancy with cataclysmic regularity. Her father always set about destroying any settled happiness that the family found, whether because he had been abused himself or because he couldn't live with a family, couldn't live without one. He stole money for food from the children's savings boxes. Inevitably, their admiration turned to despair and fury, though surprisingly slowly to contempt and rejection. "How could he?" the reader says repeatedly as the father pulls another fast one, ruining months of work at a drunken stroke.

The kicker to the story, one which Walls pulls off with charm and steely resolve, comes when the feckless parents follow their offspring to the big city. They live on the streets, despite increasing health problems. Even though the mother is heiress to millions, she prefers to live rough; even though it kills her husband, drawing him ever back, fatally, to drink, she still chooses it. It's a story which turns the American dream of the personal quest inside out and upside down.

The gypsy family in Louise Doughty's latest novel is rackety in a more traditional way, with the man, Eli, going his own sweet way whatever the women in his life - tough little mother Clementina and soft, sweet, sad wife Rose - want. Rose is "gorjer" (non-Romany), but although Doughty is herself of Romany ancestry, she portrays all her characters in the round.

The narrative interweaves the memories of mother and wife in an elegy for a vanished way of life, clear-eyed about its beauties - the countryside, the companionship - and its horrors - the oppressive gossip and social mores, persecution by the authorities, illness.

The novel has flashes of wisdom. "It's a relief when you stop trying to fill the gaps," observes Clementina, an understanding which MacNeice shared: "We are dying, Egypt, dying And not expecting pardon Hardened in heart anew But glad to have sat under Thunder and rain with you And grateful too For sunlight on the garden."

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