Wonderful tale of loss and loves in Trinidad

Review: Vivien Horler

Love after Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber/ Jonathan Ball)

This glorious novel is suffused with love and longing. There is marital love, maternal love, gay love, even love for the place you come from. And sometimes it turns up unexpectedly.

One of the central characters of Love after Love is the West Indian island of Trinidad, where Betty Ramdin, a teacher, lives with her abusive husband Sunil and young son Solo.

The flavor of the marriage is exposed on the first page when Sunil calls Betty. As she approaches him he kicks her on the shin and says: “Slow coach. You can’t come when I call you? What, you ugly and you deaf?”

Within four pages Betty has a broken arm and Sunil is dead. But he casts a long shadow throughout the novel.

Shortly afterwards Betty tells a colleague that she has a room to let in her big old house. Mr Chetan moves in with Betty and Solo.

They all get on wonderfully, and Betty, who hasn’t realised Mr Chetan is gay, hopes he will fall for her. She is forced to give up that dream, but the pair become devoted friends, and Mr Chetan acts as a father figure to Solo.

Life isn’t easy for them. Betty doesn’t have much money and would very much ike to find a new partner. As for Mr Chetan, being gay in Trinidad is a perilous business, since it is illegal. He too hopes to find love.

The novel proceeds episodically describing island life, the cross-over of Christian religion and Hinduism, Mr Chetan taking Solo to the football, Betty having an affair with the father of two boys in Solo’s class. There is lots of Trinidadian cooking, vegetable gardening and a fair bit of rum drinking.

One night a few years later, after some rum has been taken, Mr Chetan and Betty confide their deepest secrets to each other. They are appalled when they realise Solo has overheard his mother. Solo is appalled and horrified too. He persuades his mother to buy him an air ticket to visit his father’s brother in New York, and goes off on what Betty thinks is a holiday, but he has no intention of ever coming back.

Betty is distraught, especially as Solo will not write to her or speak to her on the phone. Their only contact is through Mr Chetan. With no proper papers, Solo can find only laboring work, and hates the winter cold. But he says he will never return to Trinidad while his mother is on the island.

As for Mr Chetan, he finds a boyfriend but the relationship isn’t what he’d hoped.

The language is suffused with Trinidadian argot and rhythms. Anyone checking my Google searches for words like liming, soucouyant and pum-pum shorts would assume I was off to the islands imminently for the mas (masquerade). I have downloaded the recipe for tomato choka (Trinidadian roasted tomatoes) which looks delicious.

The novel starts out delightfully (well, apart from the first few pages of abuse), but as things go wrong for Betty, Mr Chetan and Solo, it tears at your heartstrings.

Ingrid Persaud was born in Trinidad but now divides her time between Barbados and London. She has won Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the BBC Short Story Award.

The book takes its title from the poem Love after Love by the poet Sir Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and spent much of his life in Trinidad. It begins:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

Eventually, in this novel and in life, we have to learn to love ourselves.

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