Readers can travel to far flung places in the pages of a book. They can see life from the lofty perspective of an Olympian or statesman or immerse themselves in a different time, from the Dark Ages to a dystopian future.
But, while the topics, settings and characters in books vary widely, there is one theme that is central to many of our most popular works of literature: family.
Whether the family means a father and his blind daughter escaping the Nazis (All the Light We Cannot See), an unconventional set of twins (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), a former prisoner of war struggling to live as part of a traditional family unit (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), a husband coming to terms with his wife’s illness (The Museum of Modern Love), or one of many other permutations, it is hard to ignore the presence and significance of family in fiction.
So, of all the possible themes and relationships available to writers, why does family appear again and again?
Partly, this might be due to the common experience of family. Whether loving, distant, eccentric or conservative, family is central to many readers’ lives, with the absent often as influential as the present.
It is intriguing to peer inside a family home and witness the habits, quirks and experiences of another family, much like our own. Whether the story is set far away or close-by, we can recognise ourselves and those we live alongside; elements of our own family lives are discernible in the sagas set in the heart of Calcutta (Freedom Song), a sheep station in the Australian outback (The Thornbirds) or a suburban home in the US (Run, Rabbit, Run). After all, while families, happy or sad, near or far, can differ in many ways, they also share many similarities.
Another appealing element of family life for storytellers is the complexity of families, formed of different generations and personalities, growing up in close proximity to each other. This dynamic gives rise to a lifetime of petty jealousies, tensions, joys and sadnesses – the stuff of the best storytelling.
The complexity of the family unit is clearly evident in Commonwealth by Anne Patchett, which centres on a family broken apart by infidelity, and put together in a new and, at times, unwieldy form. In the story, siblings and step-siblings form alliances, betray each other, and eventually, rebuild damaged relationships. Underlying the story is a familiar sense of acceptance that the children are ‘all in this together’, despite the resentments, bitterness and guilt that sometimes arise.
The very closeness and intimacy of family relationships can make certain story lines sing, offering writers the opportunity to explore great depths of emotion, from intense joy and affection to grief and loss. It is unsurprising that the death of a child is a recurrent theme in literature (in The Poisonwood Bible, Little Women, Sophie’s Choice, and The Lovely Bones, to name just a few). Here is emotion of the deepest kind. Read and weep.
The relationships between parents and their children is a particularly nuanced one, providing fertile ground for writers. Room centres on the dedication of a mother to her son in extreme circumstances, while in Beloved, Toni Morrison reveals the depth of a mother’s love for her child, and the heartbreaking decision made in the face of that devotion. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about a father protecting his son and one of my favourite passages in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a moment of affection between an ailing father and his adult daughter.
Another trait that unites many families, in fiction as in reality, and makes them fascinating studies of human nature, is the inescapable and untainted honesty that resides in the family home; there are few situations in which someone’s true character is more pronounced than among those they know best. Behaviours that are well hidden outside the home roam free once the front door is closed. And so, writers can portray characters at their most honest, truthful and complex – in their private sphere.
Often it is not drama or exceptional circumstances that provide the opportunity for a deep exploration of character and family relationships, but the malaise of everyday life. American writer John Updike was famous for portraying suburban malaise, and the chaos and despair that emerges in these environments. We might read about spouses who silently flinch at the sight of each other, or siblings whose relationship swings wildly between harmony and hot anger.
However, not all families in fiction are troubled or ill-fated. Sometimes it is the humour and heart in families that appeals to readers.
In My Family and Other Animals, the quirks of a British family that travels to the exotic climes of Corfu are hilarious, and heart-warming. The tale is told with such tenderness, complemented by a strong sense of the absurdity of family life in which siblings and parents are forced to live with those whose personalities are, surprisingly but consistently, quite different to their own. And it is a rare family that has not occasionally recognised the quirks that lie within their own unit.
Another family notable for its warmth and affection, despite moments of tension and friction, is that at the centre of Little Women. While the girls might have different perspectives and natures, there is a sense of intimacy and common experience between them, which makes the loss experienced by the family so poignant and heartbreaking.
So, while the family home might be a place of comfort and stability, even boredom and monotony, for writers, it is a place fertile with possibilities. It offers access to the highest of emotions, the most poignant of moments and most valuable of lessons. Is there any wonder why family is at the centre of most of our favourite books?