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Love After Love

Ingrid Persaud

Faber, 2020

Review by Suzanne Harrington

 In his 1971 poem ‘Love After Love’, Derek Walcott invokes the redemptive love of self, after the self has taken a battering: ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self…give back your heart to itself…’  

 In Ingrid Persaud’s novel, with its title borrowed from Walcott, Betty Ramdin’s heart – and the rest of her – has taken all kinds of battering from her drunken husband Sunil. So has their son Solo, just out of nappies when kicked in the face by his father.

On Solo’s fifth birthday, Sunil falls down the stairs and dies. Noticing, at his funeral, that Betty’s arm is in a cast, someone tells her that Sunil’s violence signified love: ‘He break your hand?  A love letter. He take a knife and stab your leg? Until death do us part.’

 Persaud’s Love After Love could equally have been called Loss After Loss – corrosive loneliness burns through the narrative – yet her characters brim with love, hope, desire, and humour.  Zero schmaltz. Grounded in vivid, rhythmic lyricism and no-nonsense Trinidadian wit  (‘Look, this is Facebook. Everybody know fisherman don’t say he fish rotten’), Love After Love tells the story of Betty, Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan, who, over time, becomes a beloved father figure to the boy. 

 Mr Chetan is in the closet, because it’s the only safe place for a gay man in Trinidad; he has endured violent rejection from his own family. He dares not out himself, confessing: ‘I never do anybody a thing but simply being me is illegal, immoral, perverted. If anything happened to me, town will say, the queer deserved it.’

 At Betty Ramdin’s house, the three of them form a gentle unit, cooking, gardening and pottering about together, relearning trust. When Mr Chetan finally tells Betty the real reason why he won’t sleep with her, she remains his ally, urging him to seek the love he craves, ‘while your teeth in your mouth and not in a glass by the sink.’   

But during that same evening of rum and shared confidences between Miss Betty and Mr Chetan, Solo, now a young man, overhears something which causes him to angrily pack his bags and move to New York, where he lives as an undocumented immigrant. Trapped inside himself, he experiences excruciating isolation. New York is a dump compared with Trinidad. (‘I said bye-bye to sunshine, my nice house, an easy life.’) Back in Trinidad, Betty reels from her son’s rejection.

 If this all sounds like melodrama, it really isn’t.  The cadence of the story’s musical language, the humanity of its characters, the absolute relatability of their longings and loneliness, their resilience and joy, makes it a book for anyone who has ever experienced screwed-up relationships, friendships, parenting. It’s about the kindness of individuals, and the cruelties of society. It centres on the treatment of women and gay men; how mothers smother as they strive to protect, and children perilously making their own way. Love After Love is a reflection on softening, forgiving and understanding, starting with the self. It’s a novel you won’t easily forget.