The best novels about the meaning of family

The Books I Picked & Why

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of The Road

Why this book?

This story about a man and his son travelling across a vile, wasted America is stark, spare, and brutal. It’s also spare in its idea of family by casting a sickly man and his boy against a brutal, inhumane world as they depend on each other to survive. They are each other’s reason for remaining tethered to a life that has lost all meaning; but they are also each other’s reason for refusing to give in to the selfishness and inhumanity of a world that demands that of everyone trying to stay alive. This is the novel that cleaves my life as a writer into two unequal halves. After I had read it for the first time, I knew that something had to change about my writing because I saw how much was possible with so little.


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One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Why this book?

Another landmark in my life as a reader-writer, I often describe this book as the one that set me free. It freed my understanding of what a novel could be, showing me how a story could be both whimsical and serious at the same time. It’s also expansive in its idea of family, weaving a tapestry of complex, colorful individuals bound variously to each other by blood or love but uniformly to one location – the House – across the great span of time.


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Ghana Must Go

By Taiye Selasi

Book cover of Ghana Must Go

Why this book?

A propulsive, elegant novel that goes back and forth in time remembering the progressive scattering of a family across the globe because of a singular decision by its patriarch – to leave – and then charting their coming back together. It moved me, putting its finger on the meaning of family in a way that felt true and specific to my own experiences as a son and a brother.


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The Old Drift

By Namwali Serpell

Book cover of The Old Drift

Why this book?

This mountainous whirlwind of a book is many things and does many things. A dazzling compendium of styles and genres, it’s probably the most ambitious debut I’ve ever read. It charts three family lines across a century as their respective trajectories meet and separate in a kaleidoscope of meaning, fleeting coincidence, and pure ecstasy. It made me think of how we never get to choose our ancestors and how we are stuck, for better or worse, with who they were and with who we are as a result.


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The Cement Garden

By Ian McEwan

Book cover of The Cement Garden

Why this book?

Ian McEwan’s first novel, it’s about a family of siblings left to their own devices after they lose both parents in a matter of weeks, hiding the fact from the authorities and subsisting in a strange existence of their own making. A disturbing coming-of-age tale that explores teenage angst and discontent, while toeing the line of that most forbidden of family taboos that shall remain unnamed, since it’s so easy to reduce this novel to being about just that. There is tenderness and deep emotion here, for sure, but it’s played quietly and between the lines. I’ve read it many times, and with each read, I feel more strongly that it’s really a damning critique of a society that could push children to such extents, making the larger point that no family can exist sustainably in a vacuum of its own making.


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