Uncomplicated, happy families are not to be found in most books – no more than in most homes. Family life is messy. Try getting several people into a car, or through an airport, and you’ll know how quickly family drama can escalate. And these are supposedly the easy bits. What about when there’s real trouble?
I’m drawn to stories of families under pressure, from without and within. In my story collection Shine/Variance, there’s a father smiling his way through a crisis while Christmas tree shopping with his son, a daughter pretending there’s nothing wrong with her mother, brothers and sisters realising who their parents really are. In my stories and this selection of books, we find families pretending everything is under control, when the reality is nobody knows what they are doing. All families make it up as they go along, in the hope that they’ll hold it together.
Here is my selection of books about families I’ve been thrilled to read about (but pretty glad not to be part of):
1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
This novel of ramshackle family life is one of several first-person stories on this list, and 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain’s voice is so alive, from the first line: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink … I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.” Cassandra, thank goodness, writes so much more, holding that voice and the tumbledown Mortmain family together, until all that’s left is love in the margins. It’s chaotic, joyful and funny, like all the best families. (And a father is locked in a tower and forced to write, cual, according to my kids, is proper order.)
2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
Open almost any book by Tyler and you’ll dive into the heart of what family members do to each other: know each other far too well and keep going regardless. This is my favourite. Maggie and Ira Moran, 28 years married, drive to a funeral and back in one day. They meet old high-school friends. Maggie intervenes (Ira would say meddles) in her son’s failed relationship. She holds an ideal family and marriage in her mind, y, though she’s not in either (quien es?), her attempts to make things better, or at least less regrettable, are the raw and true heart of this book.
3. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
The book that made me want to write in a child’s voice. Paddy never slips into self-pity, or overly knowing sentimentality. He just deals with what’s in front of him. He gives voice to the plight of most 10-year-olds: realising that his parents are not all-powerful superheroes, that they cannot save him from the world, and they may not be able to save themselves. It’s an unknowingly heroic voice that echoes through many stories, not least my own.
4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Despite everything the Joads face on the dehumanising road to California, they are rare dust bowl flowers of dignity and kindness, in a place where thorns of rage and selfishness are more likely to take hold. “Strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.” It’s the women, Ma in particular, who are the heart that never stops firing. Her daughter Rose’s final act in the book is one of the most heartbreaking and heart-filling moments in any book, and it’s enacted without a word.
5. The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver
A century after the Joads, Lionel Shrivel depicts another multi-generational American family, trying to keep afloat as the bottom falls out. The Mandibles are not the Joads: they’re wealthy, and pretty nasty when we meet them. But the collapsing market teaches them some lessons in survival and humility. Their privileged problems (do we have enough wine?) give way to more fundamental ones (sorry, there’s no more toilet paper), and to the painful sacrifices made by the elders in the hope the family survives. A novel of ideas, in which everything significant becomes worthless, except the family.
6. Amongst Women by John McGahern
The finest Irish family novel. A once ranking officer in the war of independence, Michael Moran is now a wounded beast, his grip over his wife Rose and his children failing. In Amongst Women, it feels we’re watching a form of Irish family – closed, silencio, patriarchal – slip away with Moran. It is the women in this family, caring for Moran in his decline, who are in control. From the opening line – “As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters” – to the final image of his sons laughing as they walk back from his funeral as if they were “coming from a dance”, we’re held in the grip of this family, and the spare prose of McGahern.
7. Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Another family under threat. Not the existential one of the Joads or the Mandibles, but no less deadly: desire for another. Graham and Audra are 12 years into their marriage (his second). Audra is 15 years younger, but there’s a wider chasm between them. Graham’s first wife Elspeth looms over this family story. Graham wonders if it’s a good idea for anyone to remarry as “it only led to comparisons”. Audra is dedicated to their son, Mateo, who is the titular standard deviation of difference from the “average” child. She tries to help him find his way, while losing her own way as her marriage unravels. Heiny asks us: how much pain are you willing to take to hold a family together? And despite the pain that lies under Audra’s manic family activities, it’s very funny.
8. Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Look back on your childhood, see your family swaying in a late evening sun that cannot last. Did it happen at all? This play (not strictly speaking a book, but Friel had to be on this list) is family looked at through the uncertain light of recollection. Michael relieves his childhood in a house of “five brave women” – his mother and four aunts, five mothers in effect (surely every boy’s dream). A chancer of a father drifts through, making idle promises. The knowing point of view is what twists my heart when I read it. The sepia recollections are undercut, often in the same line, with the brutal truth of what happened to this family: hope turned to shame, the sun set on each of them. A masterpiece of family and memory.
9. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Family is at the core of many of O’Farrell’s wonderful books. In Hamnet we meet one of the most extraordinary women and mothers she’s brought to life. Agnes Hathaway is imbued with an almost supernatural depth of perception and feeling. The bond between Hamnet, his mother and his twin sister is as though their bones were entwined. And when it is broken, the howling loss comes off the page and seeps into our bones. What can we do when a part of the family is gone? How do we go on? The absent father of the family returns with the for ever answer: remember.
10. Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett
This recent debut is a beautiful tale of two brothers against the world, and completely for each other. From the beginning, we know that one of the brothers is already gone, y, like Dancing at Lughnasa, it’s the pain of knowing this as the story of Finn and Joe unfolds that makes this book so wrenching. This family story could have been played for tears, but the writing is tight and unsentimental, and all the more powerful for it.