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Love After Love review: Connection, violence and vibrancy in Trinidad

In Ingrid Persaud’s debut novel three people become a self-made family amid messy lives

Love After Love
Love After Love
Author: Ingrid Persaud
ISBN-13: 978-0571356195
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £14.99

Ingrid Persaud’s first ever short story, Sweet Sop, narrated in her native Trinidadian dialect, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018. Pretty impressive. If you think that’s some achievement, wait until you read her debut novel, Love after Love.

It’s no surprise that BBC Radio loved her writing, as Persaud’s rich prose is first-person, voice-led and dances to the rhythm and sounds of Trinidad – a dream to listen to and read. I say “listen to”, because the sentences speak to you, are translated into speech in your head. The cuisine appears before your eyes, the tastes on the tip of your tongue, too, and that, combined with the sights, smells and sounds of the island so vividly described by the author envelop you in an immersive storytelling experience.

Persaud lets us know right from the beginning that she won't flinch from the worst of human behaviour

The novel drops you like a pebble into the foul waters of Betty Ramdin’s toxic relationship with her abusive husband, Sunil, and we go deep, fast, witnessing his cruelty towards her and their young son. Persaud lets us know right from the beginning that she won’t flinch from the worst of human behaviour but will describe, graphically, at times, scenes other authors might shy away from. Be prepared for life in all of its colours, she seems to say, and we feel violence will return to these characters and, indeed, acts of violence leading to murder bookend the novel. Don’t be put off, as the novel is funny too, and full of life.

Gay lodger

Initially the chapters alternate between Betty Ramdin and her lodger, Mr Chetan. They are then joined by Betty’s son, Solo. Over time the three become a self-made family, each fulfilling a need for the other. To Betty, Mr Chetan not only provides the financial help she needs as sole breadwinner but he also provides company for her, shares in the running of the household and helps parent her son. Mr Chetan finds the acceptance, family life and love he craves from the Ramdins, denied to him by society’s attitude to his homosexuality. Solo desperately needs a father figure to replace the one he remembers only fondly, and he finds that in Mr Chetan.

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Mr Chetan hides his aforementioned homosexuality and his early-morning risky sexual encounters

Throughout, all observers at some point question the relationship between Betty and Mr Chetan, suggesting there is more to it than meets the eye. The characters themselves even question it, resulting in an attempt at sex that, despite their hopes and efforts, ends in failure. This results in Mr Chetan finally admitting to Betty, and ultimately himself, that he is gay and there is no hope of their relationship being anything more than platonic.

Like all families, even self-made ones, it seems, are hiding their secrets. Mr Chetan, his aforementioned homosexuality and his early-morning risky sexual encounters, and when Betty reveals her secret to Mr Chetan (her hands on her husband’s drunken, fatal fall) she is overheard by her son, who keeps this knowledge to himself but retreats from her and flees for New York to stay with his father’s brother, as soon as he graduates.

Physical toll

If Betty’s story seems to lose some of its vibrancy in the middle section of the novel, we are drawn into Solo’s; his vulnerability in this new setting takes a physical toll and manifests in another kind of violence, self-harm. This is handled intelligently and sensitively under Persaud’s unflinching gaze. Back in Trinidad we follow Mr Chetan’s search for love and his relationships with an old flame and a local policeman. Nothing comes easy to our characters; nothing is straightforward in their messy lives. It is that messiness that marks Persaud’s novel as terribly human; loneliness, the craving for love, the failures and tragedies alongside the pleasures of food and flesh and the joys of human relationships. One niggling question: when Persaud establishes herself so firmly in the school of full gaze, why does she avert her eyes to the final violent tragedy? It seems out of authorial character and pulls her only punch, which lessens its emotional impact.

Persaud now lives between London and Barbados, but her voice is pure Trinidad, in all its charm

I had no idea that the poor of India replaced the black slaves in Trinidad and make up nearly half the population. That Indian culture and religious ritual sit side by side and are sometimes interwoven with Trinidadian way of life. Persaud now lives between London and Barbados, but her voice is pure Trinidad, in all its charm, complexity, musicality and earthy vibrancy.