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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fatin Abbas

Top 10 books about chosen families

Zubin Varla (Harold), James Norton (Jude), Elliot Cowan (Brother Luke) and Nathalie Armin (Ana) in the stage version of A Little Life.
Foregrounding friendship … Zubin Varla (Harold), James Norton (Jude), Elliot Cowan (Brother Luke) and Nathalie Armin (Ana) in the stage version of A Little Life. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

Fairytales from Cinderella to Snow White, rituals such as “white weddings”, the valorisation of biological parenthood in mainstream culture, all reinforce a narrow idea of family as heteronormative and reproductive.

But our closest and most meaningful bonds need not be nuclear, biological or indeed romantic. We’re shaped in profound ways by families we choose or that choose us. Not only adoptive families, but friendship circles, queer kinship groups, and the people we spend our working days with can affect us deeply. It’s in these ties that new blueprints for love and connection come into being. And, as with biological family, it’s also there that pain and suffering can unfold.

My novel, Ghost Season, is about five strangers who share an NGO compound in a remote town on the border between Sudan and South Sudan in the early 2000s. Thrown together by circumstance, they must rely on each other as family to survive the north-south civil war. This despite their disparate backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, experiences. Below are more books I love that envision families of choice in all their beauty, complexity, and occasional dysfunction.

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
What a delight to encounter a novel that foregrounds friendship as a territory as rich and deeply meaningful as the conventional family. The book follows Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, friends living in New York. Jude is disabled, prone to depression and self-harm. He is unable to open up to those around him, including his three best friends. Jude’s mysterious past catches up with him, however, and when feelings develop between him and one of his friends, the tragedy of his childhood comes to light. Yanagihara’s novel was a smash hit for a reason: it’s a profound depiction not only of suffering, but also of friendship, queer love and intimacy, and of the families we choose.

2. The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
Three pianists live and work together in a conservatory in Salzburg, Austria. One of them is a fictionalised Glenn Gould, the piano prodigy renowned for his rendering of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould is dead, and the second friend, Wertheimer, has just killed himself. Only one of the three friends is left alive to tell their story. In one unbroken monologue that spans more than 170 pages, the unnamed narrator recounts his relationship with his two friends in obsessive detail. Ambition, competition, talent, envy and obsession are the big themes of this tortured musical family.

3. Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E Butler
The title story of this wonderful collection tells of humans on an alien planet whose bodies are used to host and incubate the foetuses of aliens. This human-alien birth is a gory affair: after incubating, baby Tlic grubs begin to eat through their human hosts, and, unless the Tlic parent removes its babies quickly, the human host dies. Alien Tlic exploit humans parasitically, but in the hands of a writer as brilliant as Butler, this relationship is rendered in a far more complex and interesting light. The bond between aliens and humans isn’t just one of exploitation, but also of mutual dependence, vulnerability, trust, and inter-species family.

4. The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Kerewin is a recluse who lives in a tower on the South Island of New Zealand. One day, a mute boy shows up in her home. Kerewin meets his foster father Joe and learns that the boy, Simon, is an orphan who had washed up years before after a shipwreck. When Kerewin, who completes the family triangle, realises that the bond between foster father and son is shadowed by abuse, she must act to protect Simon. Hulme doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects and emotions: love is mingled with abuse in this novel, but never in a way that whitewashes or condones the latter.

5. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
James’s stunning novel is narrated by one motherless slave, Lilith, who joins a band of Night Women planning a slave revolt in 1700s Jamaica. The ring’s leader, named Homer, becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Lilith, though the relationship is full of turbulence. Narrated in Jamaican patois, this novel doesn’t spare any detail in depicting the brutalities of slavery. It also traces how enslaved people forged bonds despite violently ruptured biological ties.

Ben Kingsley and Melinda Whiting in the BBC’s 1985 adaptation of Silas Marner.
Ben Kingsley and Melinda Whiting in the BBC’s 1985 adaptation of Silas Marner. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

6. Silas Marner by George Eliot
Eliot’s slim novel tells the story of a weaver who is falsely accused of a crime and cast out from his Calvinist congregation. He moves to a small village in Warwickshire where he lives in isolation and hoards gold that he earns from his work. When his gold is stolen, he is devastated. One night, he wakes up to find a baby at his hearth. She has wandered in from the cold. Her mother lies dead outside in the snow. Eppie, as Silas comes to name the baby, changes his life forever in this profound portrayal of adoptive family.

7. Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In 1955, Oleg Kostoglotov, former gulag inmate, is admitted to a hospital cancer ward in Soviet-controlled Uzbekistan. He is one among a group of patients, doctors and nurses grappling not only with acute illness but also with the legacy of Stalin, who has died two years earllier. In Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical novel, cancer is used to comment on the Stalinist state, but it’s also the condition that brings the inhabitants of the ward together in confronting the mortality of the body.

8. The Beggars’ Strike, or, the Dregs of Society by Aminata Sow Fall
This story, set in an unnamed African capital, pits a power-hungry government minister against beggars and homeless people he is intent on clearing from the streets. The minister, however, underestimates these “dregs of society”. They band together under the matriarch Salla Niang, who welcomes them into her home and cares for them in the face of the city’s violent campaign against them. Under Salla, the beggars not only form a family of outcasts, they also organise to derail the minister’s plans. A fable about poverty and class solidarity by a trailblazing Senegalese novelist.

9. Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez
At the heart of this capacious horror allegory is the Order, a cult in pursuit of immortality that makes pacts with the Darkness by undertaking all kinds of horrific acts and sacrifices of innocents. The Order’s murders and mutilations seem far fetched, but not when considered in the context of the military dictatorship of Argentina, which serves as the backdrop to their acts. The story is not limited to Argentina, however: the Order shows the global political and economic elite as a disturbed and disturbing family of choice.

10. The Overstory by Richard Powers
To choose family in this epic environmental novel is to step outside of human society and into the natural world. A group of environmental activists side with trees against fellow humans who seek to raze ancient forests for profit. The trees in this novel are as alive and sharply drawn as the human characters, and, in their capacity for cooperation and communication, they provide a blueprint for a more balanced and just human society.

Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas is published by Jacaranda Books (£16.99)

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