Book World: Persaud’s work is a reminder of why we seek answers in writing

Book jacket of book by Ingrid Persaud. “Love After Love”
Photo by: One World via The Washington Post

Love After Love

By Ingrid Persaud

One World. 336 pp. $27

Ingrid Persaud’s debut novel, “Love After Love,” builds on the wistful melancholia of the eponymous poem by the Caribbean titan of letters, Derek Walcott. Persaud’s book is a memorable, moving account of wounded people who come together to create an alternative family, a refuge where they can heal. The novel’s protagonist, Betty Ramdin, survives a harrowing marriage, including physical and emotional abuse, only to pursue, with varying success, the love of two men – her only son, aptly named Solo, and Mr. Chetan, a gay man who struggles within the strictures of Trinidad and Tobago, where social mores constrict his pursuit of a satisfying private life.

Persaud offers readers not only the expected doubles, roti and music the twin island republic is famous for but also vivid descriptions of insular communities, intimate friendships and Hindu religious practices and mysticism. The joy of this novel is in the way that it savors language and life’s sensory pleasures; when Betty cooks cascadoux curry, the reader’s mouth waters for the food she serves with love. Persaud captures the gorgeous rhythms of Trinidadian speech and presents the bawdy humor, wit and buoyancy Trinis are known for. Persaud relies on readers’ good sense to translate Trinidadian witticisms like “From the smack of his lips I knew it real lash.” In a hilarious takedown of the false lives people display on social media, Betty states plainly, “Everybody know fisherman don’t say he fish rotten.”

There is much to admire in “Love After Love.” It will be a pleasurable read for anyone who has tried and failed in love, marriage, friendship and parenting. This novel reminds readers of why we go to books in search of answers to life’s great questions, among them how to demand more of our lovers and ourselves, how to guide the children in our lives and how to grieve our losses and our mistakes. We could all stand to follow Betty’s advice to Mr. Chetan to follow a romantic lead: “Do it while your teeth in your mouth and not in a glass by the sink.”

Persaud’s novel delves briefly into the cracks in the American Dream. Given cliched coming-to-America stories and the peddling of false narratives of West Indian immigrants as model minorities, I enjoyed reading the story of Solo, who tries and fails in New York City, overstays his visa and then decides to return home. Solo’s disappointing experience is common and evokes timely debates around immigration to the United States and who “belongs” here. It also disrupts a trope that presents immigrating to America as a golden opportunity for which people should sacrifice everything (their families and dignity included). Persaud reminds us that the Caribbean is not only a place for immigrants to leave in search of better opportunity, but also a space to return to in search of love, family and connection to culture. In the words of Mr. Chetan, who left behind a life in the U.K. to return to his beloved island, “Home is where your navel string’s buried.”

I was glad to see Persaud tackle both domestic violence and taboos around homosexuality in Trinidad. Still, I struggled with the character of Mr. Chetan, whose story line occasionally felt clunky and tipped toward tragedy. I yearned for the nuance of work by queer Caribbean writers, especially Shani Mootoo and her underappreciated classic novel of lesbian desire, “Cereus Blooms at Night.” Still, I appreciated Persaud’s thoughtful effort to address a pressing social issue and to present a complex character with empathy and care. I hope the book will prompt necessary, public dialogue around these issues in the Caribbean and its diaspora.

“Love After Love” is a critical contribution to a watershed moment in Caribbean literature – the long overdue correction to the marginalization of Indo-Caribbean women’s lives and history. Persaud is joined in these efforts by Gaiutra Bahadur, whose landmark “Coolie Woman” chronicles the history of Indo-Caribbean women, and Shivanee Ramlochan, whose stunning poetry collection, “Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting,” was shortlisted for a 2018 Forward Prize for debut poetry. Persaud’s writing is a refreshing counterpoint to the problematic disdain that the late V.S. Naipaul expressed for Caribbean culture, his obsequiousness in regards to the British Empire and his misogyny.

Persaud, like many Caribbean and female writers for whom practical considerations like earning a living and family have trumped creative work, is publishing her debut novel later in life, after pursuing a career in law. Her biography recalls that of the late, legendary Toni Morrison, who published her debut novel well into her 30s. I hope that “Love After Love” will be the first of many works by Persaud that examine women’s lives, and any other subjects she chooses to tackle with her deft facility with language and her keen understanding of the human condition.

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Jackson is the author of “The Star Side of Bird Hill.”

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