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Granny’s Voice

Where are all the grandparents in contemporary literature?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s bolshy eponymous character, adores her natural grandchild but abhors her step-grandchildren. Flawed, irascible, unable to conceal her thoughts, she alienates her son and his new wife so they rarely visit, though her longing to see them is overwhelming. Once they do arrive, she speaks her mind too many times, driving away the very people she loves best in the world. Her behaviour is maddening, sad, and uncomfortably real. It draws into focus the complexities of human relationships, particularly when new layers are added. Son, grandchild, daughter-in-law, step-grandchildren, there are so many potential misunderstandings. Strout shows us how easy it is, when you love, to be overbearing, or demanding. She also exposes how difficult it is for an ageing relative to recognize they are no longer centre stage in their grown-up child’s life, and may not have automatic access to, or even the right to comment on, their grandchildren.

Sally Vickers’s new novel Grandmothers also deals with this topic, but from three different women’s perspectives. Blanche, one of her protagonists, has been denied access to her grandchildren because of her ‘alcoholism’. (In fact, she just has the odd glass of wine.) Being prevented from seeing her grandchildren breaks Blanche’s heart, and simply exacerbates her problems. Vickers explores the unusually intense love a grandparent feels for their grandchildren with sensitivity and humour.

As a brand new grandmother myself, I’ve been thinking about what this role actually means and wondering how to be a grandparent well. Olive Kitteridge and Grandmothers bring up some uncomfortable realities, forcing me to think about the potential pitfalls in a relationship that I long to be good at. However, searching for further examples of grandparents in books bears scant results.

Literature is full of mothers, describing what it means to be a mother, our relationship with our mothers, and the experience of mothers. Fathers feature too, though marginally less so. But an exploration of what it really means to become a grandparent, of the extended range of emotions it throws up, and the complicated navigations through the many newly formed relationships that arise as a result of one small addition to a family, is relatively infrequent.

In the early nineteenth century, grandparents rarely appeared in literature. There are some exceptions (Smallweed in Dickens’s Bleak House is an example, but he is a comic minor character, regularly ordering his granddaughter Judy to ‘shake me up, Judy!’) Rarely, if ever (as far as I am aware), did a Victorian novelist write from the grandparent’s point of view, or make a grandparent the central character. And perhaps this literary legacy explains why the grandparent’s voice features relatively rarely in novels today.

The exception is children’s books in which we often hear about grandparents (though not necessarily from them) through the eyes of the children who either love or fear them. They range from the dear little old lady archetype of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, to the old crone of George’s Marvellous Medicine who, in true Roald Dahl style, is an exaggeration of foul, cranky, bossy nastiness!

Grandfathers fare better in children’s literature, often appearing as simple and kind, as is the grandfather in the mountains in Heidi. Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gives Charlie the money to buy a chocolate bar and the chance to win a golden ticket. He is not just a grandpa: he’s an ally!

While, in children’s books, grandparents may loom large, and are often polarized into good or bad and stereotyped into white-haired and wrinkled, grandparents in real life do not come in good and bad and very very old. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, orientations and ethnicities, as Derek B. Miller shows us through Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Jewish war veteran, grandfather and main protagonist in Norwegian by Night. While the grandparental relationship is not the main focus, it is refreshing to read a thriller from the point of view of a complex grandfather character, whose psychological depths realistically reflect a long, sometimes tragic and varied life.

Now life expectancy has got so much greater, more of us will experience our children having children; some may even witness our children’s children having children! So there is definitely a case for contemporary literature to reflect more often this diverse cast of grand- or even great-grandparents.

Strout and Vickers show us that when the grandparental role is given an analytical eye, its complexity unpeeled, it reveals as rich a seam of human adult experience as any. Strout even dares to give us an annoyingly doting grandparent in her story ‘Exile’ in her second Olive Kitteridge book Olive, Again. In this, Helen shows her childless sister-in-law Margaret pictures of her grandchildren, gloating over how sweet and clever they are:

Helen looked up at Margaret and said ‘I’m talking about my grandchildren too much.’
Margaret said, ‘Yes. You are.’
Helen felt a sense of disbelief, and her face got hot immediately.

There we have it: a grandparent’s experiences can be ineffably dull to anyone who isn’t a grandparent. Full disclosure, if I’d listened to other grandparents before I became one myself, I might have appreciated better what an unexpectedly profound experience it was to be. I didn’t listen. Like Margaret in ‘Exiles’ I was guilty of switching off to other people gloating over their grandchild’s first steps or words. I didn’t recognize this as the grandparent’s attempt to express the miracle they were experiencing.

So perhaps, as writers, we are afraid of boring readers, by attempting to depict the granny – or grandpa – in literature.

However, nothing is dull if it is done well. While Strout adroitly examines the grandparent in relation to other adults, Tove Jansson in The Summer Book writes about the relationship between six-year-old Sophia and her aged grandmother over the course of a summer on a tiny Finnish island. Both characters are impatient with unnecessary rules, unsentimental, outspoken and occasionally abrupt with one another:

‘You know sometimes when everything’s fine, I think it’s just a bloody bore,’ Sophia said.
‘You do?’ said Grandmother, taking out another cigarette. It was only her second before noon and she always tried to smoke in secret when she could remember to.

Jansson explores how the very young and very old often have more in common than the parent and child. She shows us how grandparents often have a closeness and ability to empathise with children that parents, with their burden of responsibility, usually have to jettison.

Vickers explores this too in Minna, who, although not strictly a grandparent, has taken on this role with Rose. Minna reflects on the way people forget how it was being a child, once they have children themselves:

It sometimes seemed to Minna that the act of conceiving and bearing children in some way lobotomized the recollection of the state of being a child and implanted instead a whole new set of behaviours.

The fresh recollection of the ‘state of being a child’ is a prerogative of grandparents, giving them the potential to form closer connections to their grandchildren than parents do to their children.

Kent Haruf, in his novel Our Souls at Night, shows us how the grandparental relationship can sometimes supersede the parental one. Although his is primarily the story of the love between Addie and Louis, both recently widowed, the pair form a close, protective bond with Addie’s six-year-old grandson Jamie when he comes to stay. Jamie’s father, Addie’s son Gene, feels threatened by his mother’s new relationship, as well as her closeness to his son. He forces Addie to choose between continuing to see her lover or having access to her grandson. The novel looks at the heartbreaking choice Addie has to make and how the love for a grandchild can overpower everything.

These novels show us that grandparents as characters can be rich with complexity. But I would love to read more about things I never knew until my daughter announced she was pregnant, and the levels of feeling that would open up as a result. The miracle of witnessing your child bearing a child of their own, and the ferocious desire to protect both parent and child were hard to imagine beforehand. And when my grandchild was born, the love I felt was unlike any I’d known. It was as strong as parental love, as dizzying as romantic love, with all the euphoria, longing and fear that kind of infatuation brings with it, but with an added poignancy besides. Becoming a grandparent enhances an awareness of time’s swift passing and of your own mortality, as you move up a rung in the ladder of years. And it links you to previous generations that may have gone, to your own parents and grandparents.

It is all this I want to read about and continue to look for in literature. But in the meantime, thinking about this role so much means I am considering taking on the challenge myself, and making a grandparent the main protagonist and narrative voice in my next book.

Penny Hancock is author of novels Tideline, The Darkening Hour, A Trick of the Mind and I Thought I Knew You. She also writes features and short stories for the Guardian, Independent and Times Educational Supplement, amongst others.

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