Rachel Seiffert is the author of the Booker-shortlisted novel The Dark Room and an acclaimed collection of short stories, Field Study. She was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British writers, and one of 25 ‘women writers to watch’ in the Orange Futures promotion. Her most recent novel, Afterwards, is published by Vintage on October 11.
All of my books so far have dealt with families, most of them less than ideal. Families are endlessly fascinating: the basic unit of most human societies, we often want to escape our own, create a new, better version, or maybe crave an earlier, lost time when the unit we were in made us happy in a way it just doesn’t anymore … The following books mine this rich seam of humour and pain. All of humanity is here, in miniature (but in no particular order.)
1. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Asher is a gifted artist, born into a Hasidic family in 1940s Brooklyn. His father, Aryeh, works tirelessly for the Rebbe, often travelling into the Soviet Union to aid Jews persecuted by Stalin; while his wife supports this work, she also fears terribly for his safety. Father and son love one another deeply, but their worlds are incompatible. It’s a very moving book about how we cannot help but hurt one another.
2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson writes a book every 15 years or so, and Gilead is an object lesson in quality over quantity. The Revered John Ames has found personal happiness late in life, in marriage and fatherhood. His last year is not to be a peaceful one, however, because a young man returns to the small, devout, midwestern town of Gilead, and upsets the balance of life there. Ames has known John Boughton all his life: he is the son of a dear friend, and was named after him too. The young man needs help, but has a unique talent for causing pain.
3. The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
A memoir of Hamilton’s childhood, caught between languages and cultures. He grew up in 1950s Dublin with a German mother and Irish father. His Dad was a nationalist, and insisted – often violently – upon Gaelic being spoken by his boys; his mother couldn’t escape Germany and all its 20th-century baggage. It’s a painful read – how could it not be, covering that territory? But this is no mere misery memoir, it’s full of the most beautiful writing.
4. Honky by Dalton Conley
Another memoir, but of a quite different childhood. Conley grew up in the projects on Manhattan. His parents were white bohemians, artists who barely made a living from their work: social housing was a necessity for them, but also a kind of cultural experiment. When he was three, desperate for a little sister, Conley kidnapped a black toddler in the playground and took her home. It wasn’t long before he became aware of his skin colour, however, and how different it made him from those he grew up with. Conley is now a sociologist, and his early life certainly provided him with plenty of insight.
5. JD Salinger – Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction
A cheat, I know, as there are three books here rather than just one, but the various members of the Glass family appear across these novellas and short stories. They are the dysfunctional family par excellence, and no list of literary families is complete without them. A 20th-century, Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish clan, with seven precocious and deeply unhappy children. Often copied, never bettered.
6. The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
In a young offenders’ institution after the second world war, Siggi Jepson is told to write an essay on The Joys of Duty. Intended as an afternoon’s punishment, Siggi writes for days on end, about his Dad, who was a village policeman, and Max Ludwig, an artist whom Siggi would have much preferred as a father. Ludwig and Jepson Snr grew up together. Ludwig once saved Jepson Snr’s life. But once the Nazis come to power, Ludwig’s art is declared degenerate, and Jepson Snr is charged with policing the painting ban. Siggi knows the ban is not being obeyed, but whom should he honour, his father or Ludwig? Where does his duty lie?
7. Disgrace by JM Coetzee
David Lurie, a professor of literature, disgraces himself in middle age by sleeping with one of his students. To escape the repercussions, he goes to stay on his daughter’s farm, but once there has to cope with a further, far more profound disgrace, as the farm is attacked, and his daughter is raped. It’s a searing look at the racial politics of post-apartheid South Africa, but the emotional strength of the book lies in this struggle between father and daughter.
8. Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo
It’s the 1960s, and the Chen family has come to London from Hong Kong. Chen, his wife Lily, and her sister Mui find the British baffling, but learn to negotiate the city and its suburbs. The Triad subplot is tight and frightening, but the real story is how this family adapts to life in Britain. The parents, whose life has been defined by hard work and parental expectations are amazed to look on at their young son enjoying the park’s swings: “the lack of defining purpose in the activity… Man Kee, happy child, was getting a fresh start.”
9. Haus Without Guardians (Haus ohne Hüter) by Heinrich Böll
I don’t know if this is currently available in English, but it should be, so I’ll include it anyway. Martin and Heinrich are at primary school together in postwar Cologne, and only know their fathers as smiling pictures on the wall. Heinrich and his mum have been reliant on a series of “Uncles” for as long as he can remember, Martin lives with his grandmother, and his mother doesn’t want to get over the loss of her man. Told from the perspective of both boys and their mothers, it’s an intimate, very affecting portrait of two families distorted by war.
10. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Quoyle’s marriage falls apart, and with it his life. More by accident than design, he moves to his ancestral home in Newfoundland with his infant daughters and elderly maiden aunt. They form a family of sorts, and find a community there, despite the unpromising start. I think my favourite character is Agnis Hamm, Quoyle’s aunt, because of the secrets she lets the reader in on, but never Quoyle. Sometimes we know least about those we’re closest to, and perhaps this is no bad thing.