No exceptions to Larkin's law

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Jessica Saraga reads three books that say mum and dad have a lot to answer for.

The Granta Book of the Family. Granta Books in association with Penguin Books - 0 14 014123 5. #163;15.99. Sons, Mothers and Other Lovers. By James Park. Little, Brown #163;16. 99.- 0 316 91232 8. Your Adolescent Daughter. By Dr Carol Eagle and Carol Colman. Piatkus #163;8.99. - 0 7488 1461 0

Some books you have to be strong to read. If you want to know the truth, to quote Holden Caulfield, and why not since we're talking families, The Granta Book of the Family is one of them. Probing and scraping raw wounds, jangling tender nerve ends, it unleashes old humours you thought safely dammed, exposing the awkward truth that families are less wholesome than their image.

Writers about families look backwards, at their own lost innocence and the parents and siblings who ruled the country of their childhood. They write about the dead, the act of writing itself an elegy, and mourn as much for the might-have-been memories as the real ones. So much embarrassment in life, so much regret in death. Blake Morrision, always crucified by his father's penchant for petty flirtations and getting one over on officialdom, has a message learned only when embarrassment ceased for ever. It is an urgent message for us all: "Don't under-estimate filial grief". He found himself overwhelmed by it, pestering people for their death stories like some people swap operations.

This is an anthology culled from 12 years of Grantas, its components grandly described as fact, fiction, memoir, biography and reportage, though never differentiated. So it is impossible to know whether or not it is really Saul Bellow's father we encounter, Jewish junk man in a worn fox-lined coat, chasing the Canadian Dream in Montreal, or Peter Carey's own son's birth in Australia, the hyper-elation of that final slither into parturition mixed agonisingly in his parents with the fear of his mother's leukaemia. But certainly this is the real life Hugh Collins, a murderer, after a lifetime emulating a brave, defiant Robin Hood bank robber father,finding him in reality a drunken waster with his flies undone, nearly killing him on the realisation, going out and killing someone else instead.

Some of the writing is gentler. Angela Carter's father was, she says, the stuff of sitcoms, with his endearingly Pooterish "Pity the troops on a night like this", or "Here comes the Marquis of Carrabas". The status she prefers is Shakespearean; she is his Cordelia.

But mainly the anthology is pure pain, rolled up for protection, pain with it head in the sand, which nevertheless these writers have dug up, dissected and displayed before us. How hard to forgive our parents for being who they were, for not being perfect. How hard to forget the rejections, real or perceived, which froze us in our tracks, we believe, though indeed they may have been the making of us. This cocktail concentrate of bad blood and damage could knock you cold, but it contains some wonderful writing.

So parents are the last people who should be trusted to bring up children.Taking a step back though, perhaps we could somehow get things right? Neither Your Adolescent Daughter nor Sons, Mothers and other Lovers dissents from the idea that families are dangerous. In their different ways, both these books are parenting manuals.

James Park, in dealing with bringing up boys, starts at the outcome, basing his analysis on interviews with men, their mothers and their wives. The men he interviews are flawed and he picks their mothers to be most responsible for damaging them. Sons left in mothers' care have no guide to being male and different; mothers demand too much or give too little, show too much of the hurt of living, or do not show enough. They are tyrants or lovers to their sons, creating Wild Men, helpless Chauvinists, Lover Sons, Idolaters, Trad Men or Seducers, men who cannot relate to women with respect and equality; men who, turning their wives into mothers and treating them with mixed fear and patronage, are locked forever in the pattern programmed at mother's knee.

Not much of a nod here to the Successful Mother (Do they exist? Did James Park have one?) Perhaps we should remember that men who want to talk to researchers tend to be self-selecting.

Your Adolescent Daughter is in the same genre, presenting daughters as problems, and parents unable to cope because of the pain of their own adolescence. Its stereotypes are similarly relentless. Mothers are Overprotective, Competitor, Stage Mother, or Best Friend. Daughters are Fast Trackers or Late Bloomers. The American provenance of the volume is evident in its advice on "dating", and the importance of waiting until a girl is in her late teens before allowing her to have plastic surgery. Its earnestness produces a cringe factor which is at its worst in some of the suggested openings for a conversation with your daughter: Parent You're having some wonderful and exciting feelings now. This is all very new for you or Parent Janet and Ralph are having sex? Are they using condoms?

At least this might unite the generations in mirth. Part of the adolescent's establishment of self is surely the ability to tell "Parent" to mind her own business.

This book is a lost opportunity, its subtitle promising - "How to encourage your daughter to maintain her self-esteem and reach her full potential" - but its contents unconvincing. Like Sons, Mothers and Other Lovers it focuses on the person as problem. So too does The Granta Book of the Family, but here the person is individual too.

The message of all the books is that people mess each other up and families mess each other up most because they live in closest proximity. In understanding it all, literature is ultimately more helpful than psychobabble. The Granta Book of the Family conveys in sum through its mists of pain old maxims which still provide the best advice. Know yourself. To understand is to forgive. Communication is the best healer. Identify your desires, express your feelings, and then try to think the thoughts of whoever bugs you most, your parent, your child, you sibling or your lover. Talk, write, face it. And so be brave; read The Granta Book of the Family.

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