Welcome to the June chapter of Moncur’s Must-Reads! This month, I’m reviewing two books which I borrowed from my local library and didn’t want to give back. Prepare yourself to both cry and be blown away by these reads…
#1 Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
As the title suggests, this book is all about love. Whether that be love between family members, friends or lovers, Ingrid Persaud’s bold and tender novel explores the bonds between humans, our relationships with ourselves and the things that can tear us apart.
It flicks between the perspectives of Miss Betty, her son Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan, all of whom carry secrets that weigh heavily on their shoulders. When some of these secrets come to light, their unconventional family unit falls apart and they grow distant both emotionally and geographically. The novel goes on to show how these characters learn to love themselves and rebuild their connections with each other despite rather difficult circumstances.
Persaud paints the strong, flawed and colourful personalities of the three protagonists so candidly that their ebbing and changing relationships are incredibly beautiful and painful to follow. The characters have such depth to their back stories that everything happens realistically, with events subtly shifting the paths of their lives and revealing both the beautiful and trickier sides of love; navigating the hatred it can conjure but also the forgiveness it can bring.
Set in both Trinidad and New York, I enjoyed the balance of the two locations throughout the book and how Persaud developed their contrasting atmospheres. I could smell and hear the busy streets of New York whilst also tasting the Trini food and sinking my feet into the sand of its beaches. The whole book felt like a love letter to Trinidad, flaws and all.
The food in Love After Love is certainly a memorable aspect with Persaud including quite detailed recipes and descriptions of Miss Betty’s meals and Mr Chetan’s baked goods. It fits nicely within the plot, bringing Trinidad cuisine to life and reinforcing the importance of food in our lives, with memories and emotions attached to certain meals spent with others. What is ironic is that, once I got about a third of the way through this book, I couldn’t put it down even to eat my own lunch, despite how hungry the descriptions were making me.
What I particularly loved about the novel is the Trini dialect Persaud writes in. Whilst I had to spend a couple of chapters settling in, adjusting to the lack of speech marks and learning the new words and phrases, I adored the vibrant and melodic language and found it a really smooth reading experience. The dialect added another layer of intimacy, drawing you into the culture, lives and personalities of the characters.
Love After Love is a warming read full of life and death in equal measure. It is rather steamy at times but is also filled with a lot of pain and loneliness, showing how the secrets we keep inside can eat us alive and that only love, in its many different forms, can protect us from the injustices of this world and their collateral damage. It is bold, messy and tender, a complete joy to read but it is also incredibly sad, leaving me with intense heartache.
#2 Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
Now, this is a book that comes with many trigger warnings as it covers racism, sexism, abuse and suicide and contains some rather upsetting scenes. It is a heavy and traumatic read that you need to be in the right mood for but, saying that, it is incredibly beautiful, filled with the most wonderful father/daughter relationship. It is an ode to the magical power of words and stories, which is one of the reasons why it has made Moncur’s Must-Reads this month.
Set in 1960s Ohio in the fictional town of Breathed, Betty follows the experiences of a young girl who is one of eight children born to a white mother and a Cherokee father. Betty has skin much darker than her siblings and grows up in a town run on white privilege so faces prejudice and bullying at unfathomable levels. She is also exposed to her mother’s past trauma that has taken root in the family, the ramifications being passed from generation to generation. In her young years, Betty experiences and witnesses what others can only imagine, coping with the burdens by writing down the truths of others and burying them in her back garden.
It would be impossible to give an overview of the plot as so much occurs in this novel, but I can say that it is a heart-breaking tale of survival in a world of poverty, injustice and unthinkable horrors. The story is inspired by the author’s mother’s life which makes it all even harder to swallow. There is a certain scene that got so far under my skin that I had to step away from the book and question if it was worth continuing! It is truly harrowing in parts but I’m glad I got through it as it is written beautifully and with such powerful imagination that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it (in a good way).
The relationship between Betty and her father Landon is what sustained me when reading this book. As Betty has inherited his dark complexion, he lovingly calls her his ‘little Indian’ and takes her with him on journeys through the natural world, telling stories that ignite and inspire her love for nature, for writing and for her Cherokee heritage. Landon is a source of hope, strength and comfort in Betty’s tumultuous world and the development of their relationship is a wonderful thing to follow.
Although her father is there to pick her up when she falls down, Betty really pulls herself through the bad times. Her strength of character, love for (most of) her siblings and constant determination to keep her head afloat is ridiculous, making a tale of hardship into one that is sort of life-affirming. When you get to the end, you feel as though you have made it through ordeal after ordeal with her and I just cried.
I hope I haven’t put anyone off by going into just how horrific some parts of this book are. It is an emotional investment to read Betty but it is definitely worth it. McDaniel paints a vivid picture with every word and the experience is all-consuming.
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