Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud — seeking the truth of love in Trinidad
Ingrid Persaud’s Costa Prize-winning debut novel was more enjoyable than I anticipated when I heard it had been chosen for our next book club read. The member who proposed it is a romantic fiction fan and the title Love After Love did give a strong clue I could expect a romance — not my genre at all so I wasn’t that enthused about the choice.
Mercifully this novel was not romantic fiction in the traditional sense. Yes it does feature love, but it’s more about relationships between friends and family than hearts and flowers stuff or passion and sexual encounters.
Love After Love is the story of Betty Ramdin, a Trinidadian woman who endured her husband’s abuse for years. His death was a relief from the alcohol-induced verbal and physical attacks she and their young son Solo suffered.
Betty eventually takes in a lodger. Mr Chetan is a kind, thoughtful man who becomes Betty’s best friend and something of a father figure to Solo. Betty and Mr Chetan soon settle into a comfortably domestic life together, sharing the cooking and gardening and watching over Solo as he grows into adolescence.
The cosy set up is shattered when Solo overhears Betty and Chetan sharing confidences after they’ve indulged in one too many glasses of rum. What Solo discovers that night causes him to flee to his uncle’s family in New York and cut off all contact with his mother.
His new life is nothing like he imagined. The Ramdin family live in a run down neighbourhood of crooked houses, rusty fences and overgrown gardens that make Solo’s home place back in Trinidad seem like a mansion. He doesn’t venture far from the house, has no friends and as an illegal immigrant his job opportunities are limited to menial cleaning and construction jobs. But even at his lowest ebb, when he resorts to self harm, he refuses to return home to Trinidad.
Back home, a distraught Betty loses all interest in gardening and cooking and takes a new lover. And Mr Chetan goes off in search of his own happiness though, as a gay man where “simply being me is illegal, immoral and perverted”, his new life is fraught with danger.
What I Enjoyed
The writing style
Love After Love is told through a series of amusing and poignant episodes with Betty, Chetan and Solo takings turn to be the narrator. Each character has their own voice, Betty being the most vivid for her use of rhythm and dialect.
We get a taste of this as soon as the book opens when Betty recalls the final days of her marriage to Sunil:
—Where my food?
In two-twos I dished out the stew chicken, vegetable rice, and green salad. Sunil used the fork like it was a shovel. When he’s like this anything can become an argument and any argument can become a fight.
—Like salt cheap?
—But I hardly put salt in the food.
He rocked back in his chair. If looks could kill.
—You telling me you cook this chicken and didn’t put one set of salt in the pot?
—So, what I tasting? Something must be wrong with my mouth. How I tasting salt so? You know my pressure high and you giving me salt? Like you want to kill me? Eh?
I was careless. I’d left the rolling pin on the drain board. Easy reach of Sunil’s chair. That rolling pin might have hit the wall, or the bed, or the chair. But it found me. Doctor said the ulna and the radius snapped in two. My arm was in a cast when we buried Sunil a week later.
It took me a while to tune in to the speech patterns in the novel and to navigate many of the unfamiliar terms but once I did, I loved its musicality and immediacy.
Liming — used frequently — kept tripping me up initially but the context eventually made me realise it means hanging out and drinking with friends. Similarly, “whey nah” clicked after a while as a short form of “wait a minute” . Even where the exact meaning isn’t clear, it’s still relatively easy to make out the sense of a sentence like:
I have one lone steupse — sucking air and spit through my front teeth to make a hissing noise because is vex I vex.
The use of dialect and the vernacular made this novel come alive.
Depiction of Love
Persault shows us multiple facets of love. In Betty and Mr Chetan’s relationship we see love built on tenderness and solicitude. They each feel the weight of expectations, the Trinidad traditions that mean they cannot entirely be true to themselves. Mr Chetan’s sexuality can never be made public, leaving him with few choices other than secret and dangerous encounters with strangers in public toilets. Betty knows that she’s expected to play the role of grieving widow, something that his behaviour towards her has made impossible.
Both Betty and Chetan experience the ability of love to heal, but they also encounter its more harmful manifestation, the obsessive kind that causes misery and unhappiness. We also witness the love that underpins friendship and family. Above all this is a novel that shows how people come to love themselves, not in a narcissistic way but in the sense of being comfortable with one’s self.
Food, Glorious Food
Food is one of the ways people show their love in this novel. Whenever a character is ill, in need of a pick-me-up or some extra comforting, we can be sure that one of their friends will get out the cooking pots to create a favourite dish.
Mr Chetan hasn’t been in her house for long before Betty is treating him to cascadoux — a fish dish that takes hours to prepare. Later, when he’s been dumped by a lover, she knows that what her friend needs is some Oil Down (a kind of stew) made using her special technique:
I cook the breadfruit with the dasheen spinach and plenty pigtail but I put in two things you mightn’t use. When I’m throwing in the seasonings and the coconut milk, I add a Maggi cube. Yes, a simple little Maggi cube. Then, five minutes before it’s ready, I stir in a tablespoon of Golden Ray margarine for colour and flavour.”
The descriptions of meals are tantalising, adding to the vibrancy of the novel.
What Didn’t Work
Sense of Place
Despite all the vividness of the language and the descriptions of Trinidadian cuisine, I still didn’t get that strong a feeling of being on this island. We got plenty of references to specific locations — names of beaches and streets for example — and there were mentions of a problem with crime and violence. But it still felt rather superficial. I would have liked more descriptions of the natural landscape and the built environment and a more robust evocation of how it feels to live in Trinidad.
Obviously I can’t go into details here without spoiling the book for other readers. I’ll just say that in the final chapters something happens which didn’t feel like a natural development of the plot. It happens off stage which made it even more difficult to accept. I wonder if it was put there out of expediency, a way of neatly bringing the novel which was threatening to become over-long, to a speedy conclusion. I felt rather cheated.
If you’re looking for a novel that will plunge you into life in Trinidad, Love After Love won’t be the ideal choice. Monica Roffey does a much better job of portraying Trinidad and the wider Caribbean region in Archipelego and her more recent novel The Mermaid of Black Conch (I haven’t read the latter but other members of the book club have).
If however, you want a novel that follows the course of three people as they try to find and hold onto their idea of love, then Love After Love could be ideal.
7 thoughts on “Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud — seeking the truth of love in Trinidad”
I know what you mean about the setting seeming superficial. I liked your observations on that. Fun bit of dialogue. Very nicely written review!
A couple of us in the book club found that aspect disappointing
I like the idea of the different kinds of love at the heart of this, especially the friendship between Betty and Chetan. It’s a shame it didn’t quite land the ending – that has such a big part to play in where a book works, I think.
i think the issue about the ending was that the event upon which it hangs, just came from nowhere.
Sometimes adding too much dialect can make reading a book hard, but it sounds like it was a good part of the book in this instance.
I like the sound of this, it seems as if it has something in common with A Million Aunties, a book I really liked.
The one Jamaican writer I’ve read is Canadian based Nalo Hopkinson, whose Midnight Robber I loved. Hopkinson uses patois too, but I also found it quite easy to get into. It didn’t have a sense of place, I guess, but a very strong sense of Trinidad’s people and culture.