Memo to Leo Tolstoy: Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but some aspects of their unique discontents will be universal and familiar to readers who have parents, spouses, siblings and children of their own.
That's the case, at least, with many of the pieces in "Are We Related? The New Granta Book of the Family," a collection of short stories and personal essays that were published in the literary journal Granta. Edited by Granta editor Liz Jobey, it showcases writers from around the world, including a few who are American and famous (Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, A.M. Homes), as well as many who were new to me.
These are contemplative tales about family relationships, often describing commonplace situations. Their appeal comes not from exoticism or high drama, but from the sensitivity with which the authors pick apart their emotional complexities.
Like Linda Grant, author of the title piece, I, too, had a mother who suffered from dementia. Our moms aren't especially similar, but I sure can relate to Grant's descriptions of exasperating shopping trips and circuitous conversations. More important, I understand exactly what Grant means when she wonders how to extricate, in her feelings for her mother, the disease's effects from memories of her healthier years. "Even now, when we have tests and diagnoses and medical records, I still feel that who my mother was once and who she is now are bound up together. Where did the personality end and where did the dementia begin?"
Like the narrator of Blake Morrison's "Bicycle Thieves," I have a son whose bike was stolen. Unlike the father in Morrison's story, I didn't think to locate and stalk the kids who supposedly took it, which is probably just as well. Better instead to read what happens when this guy does, and appreciate how the decision leads to overturned assumptions and exposed moral complexities.
OK, so maybe I haven't contemplated marriage to an 80-year-old, non-English-speaking traditional Aboriginal man, as Robyn Davidson does in "Marrying Eddie." Nor do I have an estranged uncle who stayed behind in Pakistan and converted to Islam when the rest of his family fled to Delhi after the political partition of India, as Urvashi Butalia reports in a piece with the deceptively simple title "Blood." But even these more unusual situations illuminate widely shared experiences -- the mysterious immediate connection that can spring up between people on either side of a cultural chasm, and the particular, private miseries that flow from huge historical events. Like most of the pieces in the collection, these are evocative, memorable stories told with insight and sensitivity.
Katy Read is a writer who lives in Minneapolis.