Top 10 novels about unconventional families | Ingrid Persaud

Trinidadian novelist Ingrid Persaud chooses books in which people attach themselves to ‘a something’ that might ease their loneliness


My mother said to make sure my belly full. Airplane food don’t carry taste. So before I left Trinidad for university in London, I licked down a plate of curry cascadoux fish with fresh pigeon peas and boiled rice. Ma hand sweet, but I know what she’s doing. They say eat cascadoux and no matter how far you stray, all England, America, Australia, your days will end in Trinidad.

Three decades later I still ain’t reach back for good but my novel, Love After Love, is set there. It follows an unconventional family – Betty, navigating life as a young widow, her teenage son Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan, a gay man unable to claim his sexual identity. Then one night, Bram! Solo overhears a devastating secret and the whole family mash up. Their story shows how love, even in its messiest forms, might still save us.

The thing is, when you see a family with mammy and daddy strolling along with their nice nice children, and you feel a twinge of green, don’t hurt your head. Put two scratch on that pretty picture and a set of secrets and pain will tumble out. When I turn to fiction I prefer to read about families a little more obviously broken, ones with people aching to belong, who dream of attaching themselves to a something that will ease their loneliness.

Here are 10 of my favourite books with families that make you laugh and cry same time.

1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
People told me to read this book, but I left it for years. Now I am the one telling everyone else to hurry up and read it. Check this out: a missionary takes his wife and daughters from Georgia to the Belgian Congo, and within months the family tragically unravels. Told in multiple voices over three decades, we chart their reconstruction, as individuals and as a family, against the backdrop of a changing Africa. I tell you, this book burn my heart. Plus, the writing is glorious.

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Some people does go looking for trouble. In Commonwealth it started with a kiss, and next thing two marriages mash up and children blending in a new setup. Old folks like me will remember television’s perfect blended family – The Brady Bunch. This is no Brady Bunch. The children of the Keating-Cousins family pass through neglect, death and everything in between. Nonetheless, memory, duty and affection weave through this imperfect family, and we long for them to find peace.

3. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
When rain fall, sheep and goat does have to mix. That was how the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants survived and thrived while navigating an unwelcoming, racist London. Follow the antics of unforgettable characters such as Moses, Cap, Sir Galahad and Tanty who, with humour and grit, form a family of sorts. Selvon was a boss. What he was doing in his writing in the 1950s remains profoundly inspiring.

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
I didn’t know that playing the fool in Señora Yamin-Ali’s Spanish classes would come back to bite my tail. I can only read this book in translation. They say the original is even more magical. Jeez-an-ages, there’s nothing the Buendía family don’t pass through in the seven generations we follow in this novel. Each exit from this dreamworld leaves me bereft.

a mural by artists Oscar Gonzalez and Andrew Pisacane representing passages from One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Nothing the Buendía family don’t pass through … mural by artists Oscar Gonzalez and Andrew Pisacane representing passages from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Photograph: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

5. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
I wasn’t sure I would care what happened to a poor white colonial farming family, resisting as Rhodesia transitioned into Zimbabwe. In Fuller’s memoir of her childhood she makes you care. She gives it as she got it – alcoholic mother, gun-toting father on the side of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence – always unflinching, yet deeply compassionate. A next one you won’t forget in a hurry.

6. There There by Tommy Orange
In history, plenty people have suffered, but oh gosh man, Native Americans have had to eat nuff bread that the devil heself bake. And in cities, disconnected from their culture and history? Worse yet. Told by a huge cast of narrators that come together in surprising ways and often with heartbreaking familial connections. Orange wrote this debut just to shame the rest of us with his skill.

7. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Comess and confusion reign supreme in this saga of three generations, where the Ghosh family live on top of one another in a four-storey house. We witness this big-ass Calcuttan family crumble under the weight of the socioeconomic changes that swept India in the 1960s and 70s. But it is their pettiness, secrecy and rivalry that make redemption difficult. How not to do family.

8. Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
This was a conventional London family and then just so, the mother died, leaving two little boys and their dad to cope. Along comes a crow who parks himself in their flat to see them through their grief. A novella written with a poet’s grace. I have read and reread this to remind myself of the power of literature to heal the soul. This one will hit you hard.

9. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Plenty societies don’t regard a couple as a proper family until they put down a child or three. Adebayo explores this with empathy and humour. After years of pain and betrayal, Yejide and Akin have children, but it comes at a steep price. Remember, it takes two fingers to kill a louse, and two people being honest for a family to survive.

10. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Another memoir and I ain’t go lie – this is a difficult read, layering theory and the author’s life with the artist Harry Dodge. But stick with it. Nelson forces us to look hard at marriage, family, motherhood and the cycle of life, framed with sensitivity and perception for a trans family unit. It’s not all heavy-going. Plenty in it about being bazodee in love, taking on a stepson and making their own baby.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud is published by Faber. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

Ingrid Persaud

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