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The Ties That Bind: Alice Nelson on her top 5 favourite books about families

January 9, 2019

About The Author:

Alice Nelson was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. Alice’s short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine and the West Australian Newspaper. The Children’s Houseis her second novel.

Read our review of The Children’s House here, or purchase a copy here.

Great House by Nicole Krauss

In her complex, tessellated novel about memory and history and the ways that each can cast their shadows across our lives, Nicole Krauss draws us into the heart of not one, but multiple different families. A master storyteller, Krauss was an enormous inspiration for me when I was writing my own novel and trying to weave together disparate strands of family histories. Great House explores the psyches of a heartbroken Israeli father attempting to fathom the son he has found so difficult to love, a tender English widower mourning the death of his damaged but beloved wife and a mysterious brother and sister dominated by their formidable, haunted father. The stories all coalesce in the most intricate and compelling of ways but at the centre of each of them is an obsession with the ways that we are formed in the crucible of family life.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje is one of my most beloved writers and his most recent novel Warlight is about the mysteries and secrets of families. Set mostly in London in the shadowy, confused months after the end of World War Two, two children are effectively abandoned by their parents, who disappear to pursue their own mysterious quests. ‘Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames,’ says the central character Nathaniel, ‘which meant it was also a family of disguises’. Secrets, lies, wisps of story; the novel is full of all the ways that we fail to know and understand those closest to us and the way that those failures can mark us for life.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is about the transfiguring, devouring force of romantic love, but from its famous first line, it is also very much a novel about families. The whole book can be taken in some ways as a study in the varieties of love and family life. Happy families, unhappy families; Anna Karenina asks us to consider how each kind is created and sustained and to reflect on the sacrifices and compromises that might be demanded of the individual within the family.

The Maples Stories by John Updike

Updike returned again and again throughout his career to the characters of Joan and Richard Maple, writing story after story that charted the life of their marriage from its first earnest beginnings to its divergences and infidelities and its eventual disintegration and bittersweet aftermath. This collection brings together the 18 Maples stories, and in doing so presents an often painful but always exquisitely insightful panorama of the life of one American family over the decades. Updike wrote in his foreword to the collection that the moral of the Maples stories is that ‘all blessings are mixed’ and his skillful rendering of the way that a marriage can contain both love and hate in equal measure is what makes this collection so deeply powerful.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

This beautiful and heartbreaking novel is preoccupied with loss, but it is also deeply concerned with the various configurations of family life and the twin threads of consolation and pain that run through families. It charts the lives of two creative families who live side by side in Manhattan across many years, reverberating with emotional intensity as it unravels the webs of love and tenderness, pain and betrayal, loyalty and compassion that bind families together. It also explores with exquisite insight the kinds of losses and griefs that shatter the bonds of family and the ways that we can be redeemed by love.


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