There can be a hollowness in the word “love,” if it’s used incorrectly, invoked in the place of, say, anger or empathy, self-examination or remorse. Consider Derek Walcott’s poem “Love After Love,” which implores us to “Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, / the photographs, the desperate notes, / peel your own image from the mirror.” To “Give back your heart / to itself.”
What Walcott accomplishes in his poem — love deployed right, facing inward, uplifting — Ingrid Persaud accomplishes in her stellar debut novel, titled “Love After Love” in tribute to Walcott, who lived in her native Trinidad as an adult. She has taken the spirit of Walcott’s poem and exploded it into a bighearted prose narrative about an unconventional family, fear, hatred, violence, chasing love, losing it and finding it again just when we need it most.
Set in contemporary Trinidad, the novel is told from three perspectives: those of Betty Ramdin, an insightful school administrator and widow who’s inherited a large house from her grandmother; Mr. Chetan, a closeted gay teacher at Betty’s school who is in need of a place to live; and Betty’s only child, Solo. Persaud displays an ease in inhabiting each of these distinct, colloquial yet poetic voices, jumping back and forth between them without losing each speaker’s unique personality. With them we smell the food of the Caribbean, sit in the traffic, enjoy the sun, feel the remnants of colonial oppression pressing down on struggling citizens.
This book about love begins with an act of violence. Sunil, Betty’s alcoholic husband, lashes out at her and their son. But after this harrowing first chapter, after breaking Betty’s arm with a rolling pin, Sunil dies off the page. At the funeral, her arm in a cast, Betty recalls others having mistakenly called her “real lucky” to have her husband, equating love and violence. “That man only gave love you could feel,” she thinks in response.