McEwan apart, I have looked for and found most of my short story gods in the United States, and it’s certainly the case that few English writers have specialized in the form. One English writer whose stories have obsessed me – to the degree that I had to stop reading him for fear of being fatally influenced – is James Lasdun. He shares with McEwan, I think, a little of the English gothic sense, a preoccupation with innocence and the sense of characters being drawn irrevocably to some compromising act. In ‘The Half-Sister’, Martin, an under-achieving musician is unhealthily fascinated by the wealthy family he visits as a guitar tutor. Among the children is an older, rather unwanted sister, and their father appears to be making Martin an offer he cannot refuse.
First published in It’s Beginning to Hurt (Cape, 2009)
The figure of the Bad Dad turns up pretty frequently in literature, though often in the form of an apologia: it’s hard, being a Bad Dad; Bad Dads are misunderstood. Or else their badness is somehow resolved into comedy. Sometimes, however, you come across a Bad Dad story that you can’t look away from, that you have to read through your fingers. This is one of those. There is no redemption for Craig when, out on a walk with his mopey son and increasingly uncertain new girlfriend, he takes umbrage at a group of people who aren’t playing by his personal Countryside Code, and sets a trap for them that backfires horribly. The horror and punishment is so subdued you might not think much of it if you hadn’t already seen the like of it at close hand. At very close hand, if you see what I’m saying.
(First read in Granta 104: Fathers. Also collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt. Granta subscribers can read it here)