Liz Jobey seems to me a small miracle of storytelling, a novel in miniature, which follows the passage of two people through marriage to parenthood, from love to hatred, and leads us, thanks to a judicious narrator, to see how the factors that affect some people’s lives move gradually to destroy them.
Many writers turn to fiction, even when using their own direct experience, because it gives them a greater freedom to discuss the characters of people they would otherwise have to identify, and, perhaps more importantly, to reveal the truth about their own emotions. Diana Athill, in a note at the end of her story, ‘Alive, AliveOh!’, which describes how a single professional woman’s life is overturned by a late and unexpected pregnancy, explained her reasons for choosing the third person when she wrote about the events forty years later:
My sense of recall . . . was sharp, yet the woman to whom this happened, though not exactly a stranger – I knew her well – was no longer me. Retelling this experience in the third person is my way of acknowledging the difference between ‘her’ and me.
Emotional truth is something Granta has always valued; the old diktat, that writing should ‘show not tell’, still pertains, as does the need for an author to establish the underlying sense of human morality in a story, which characters abuse at their own risk. So in this anthology, fact and fiction are distributed almost equally, in the belief that it provides a more rewarding reading experience. And while on the subject of statistics, for once – and this, too, came without any massaging – the gender split has come out fairly evenly. As it should, the subject of the family appeals as much to men as to women.
For anybody discussing writing about the family, it’s hard to avoid at least a mention of Philip Larkin. ‘They fuck you up’ provided a usefully provocative title for the first issue of Granta to concentrate on the family (Granta 37, Autumn 1991). But it is the final verse of that famous poem, less often quoted, that reveals Larkin’s disgust at the entire family project. Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf./ Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.