A report by Gabriel Bump for The New York Times.
There can be a hollowness in the word “love,” if it’s used incorrectly, invoked in the place of, say, anger or empathy, self-examination or remorse. Consider Derek Walcott’s poem “Love After Love,” which implores us to “Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, / the photographs, the desperate notes, / peel your own image from the mirror.” To “Give back your heart / to itself.”
What Walcott accomplishes in his poem — love deployed right, facing inward, uplifting — Ingrid Persaud accomplishes in her stellar debut novel, titled “Love After Love” in tribute to Walcott, who lived in her native Trinidad as an adult. She has taken the spirit of Walcott’s poem and exploded it into a bighearted prose narrative about an unconventional family, fear, hatred, violence, chasing love, losing it and finding it again just when we need it most.
Set in contemporary Trinidad, the novel is told from three perspectives: those of Betty Ramdin, an insightful school administrator and widow who’s inherited a large house from her grandmother; Mr. Chetan, a closeted gay teacher at Betty’s school who is in need of a place to live; and Betty’s only child, Solo. Persaud displays an ease in inhabiting each of these distinct, colloquial yet poetic voices, jumping back and forth between them without losing each speaker’s unique personality. With them we smell the food of the Caribbean, sit in the traffic, enjoy the sun, feel the remnants of colonial oppression pressing down on struggling citizens.
This book about love begins with an act of violence. Sunil, Betty’s alcoholic husband, lashes out at her and their son. But after this harrowing first chapter, after breaking Betty’s arm with a rolling pin, Sunil dies off the page. At the funeral, her arm in a cast, Betty recalls others having mistakenly called her “real lucky” to have her husband, equating love and violence. “That man only gave love you could feel,” she thinks in response.
The rest of the narrative takes place years later, after Mr. Chetan has taken Sunil’s place in the house. Constant threat is replaced with warmth.
Persaud makes this transition smooth. She doesn’t ruminate on logistics. Instead of long meditations on what constitutes a home, she demonstrates the meaning of family through small actions: a snack retrieved from the kitchen, a playful dinner conversation, a gentle touch, a caring admonition. Through her tender eye, we see full characters leaning on one another to better understand the world and themselves. We wish our families were more like theirs.
But still, Persaud knows no love is without its challenges. Having established a comfortable, peaceful order, she quickly upends it. And it’s in the second half that the novel’s heart lies, as a secret revealed about the nature of Sunil’s death threatens to crumble this makeshift family.
Suddenly, we’re tossed out of the house and into an unforgiving world. Solo moves (illegally) to New York City, settling into an uncertain immigrant life with his father’s extended family. Meanwhile, Mr. Chetan struggles romantically, and Betty, now alone, moves aimlessly about the island, ghostlike and drained.
In lesser hands, the plot of “Love After Love” could have fallen into melodrama. Domestic abuse, bigotry, failed romance — these are delicate topics that are easy to exploit. But Persaud never loses control. She understands that real love is experienced through unpredictable cycles. Like planets in orbit, her characters may drift apart, but they’re always eventually pulled back toward the huge, blazing center.
That said, the writing can at times feel too restrained. Just when we want to hang out a beat longer in the minds of these wonderful characters, Persaud ends the chapter or scene, throws us into another perspective. There are also moments when the characters feel secondary to the overall message, but readers shouldn’t mind this hierarchy too much.
We’re all living through amplified despair, loneliness, collective grief, anger. Great books about love, like this one, feel like precious and impossible gifts. We should cherish the writers who provide them. Persaud shows us the importance of allowing people into our lives who will squeeze us when we need it, rub our backs, offer us a drink, pick us up from the airport. Through her characters, she teaches us, as Walcott did: “You will love again the stranger who was your self.”