Families have secrets, they have complicated dynamics. And none more so than other people’s families. As children, we would visit friends and lay awake in the dark, listening to the unfamiliar groans of a shifting house, the nocturnal rustlings of unseen animals, parental murmurs through walls. A slow deciphering began of where this other family fit and how it compared to our own.
Reading a novel about families can give an adult much the same feeling. An opportunity to glimpse into a new world – familiar and foreign at the same time—and a thrill from discovering the dark secrets of others, the reassurance that your family is the normal one. Because no matter how many arguments you’ve had with your own family over the Christmas turkey, at least no-one is hiding any really big secrets.
Or are they? Because the thing with families is, you never really know. Even if you are on the inside.
In my latest book, The Way from Here, we meet two sisters. Mills Anderson—sensible and reliable—who think she knows everything about her sister Susie—the wild one. They’re close, even though they’re so different. When Susie dies suddenly, Mills is devastated but also shocked to receive a mysterious bundle of letters from her sister to be read in the case of her death. The letters take her to places that were special to Susie—both to spread her ashes but also to uncover some truths that Susie has long kept hidden from her family. The journey takes Mills back to one golden summer on an idyllic French island where a dark and shocking event was the beginning of an unravelling thread. A thread that connects generations of Anderson women and brings long-buried family secrets to the surface.
Ever since Leo Tolstoy penned his famous words at the beginning of Anna Karenina, novelists have been rushing to prove his dictum. And luckily for readers, it’s just as much fun to read family secrets, mystery, and yes, unhappiness, as it is to write it. Here are some of my favorite books featuring multigenerational explorations of family secrets and mysteries.
A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine
It’s hard to pick a favorite Barbara Vine. All her books, both writing as Barbara Vine and Ruth Rendell, are impeccably plotted and laced with dark suspense and incisive character explorations. Here, she unpicks the respectable veneer of the genteel Hillyard family and builds a menacing portrayal of life for women in the England of the forties and fifties. Not only a masterclass in how to write family secrets and suspense, this book is the precursor for many of today’s psychological thrillers.
The Confession, by Jessie Burton
The Confession starts off as love story between Elise Morceau and the famous novelist Constance Holden. Three decades later, Elise’s daughter sets out to discover the truth about her mother Elise, who disappeared when she was a baby. Like all good multigenerational family mysteries, it is set between two time frames, skipping between the equally alluring worlds of LA in the eighties and modern day literary London and considers questions of motherhood, creativity and ownership of the truth.
Alys, Always, by Harriet Lane
With shades of Daphne Du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, Harriet Lane creates the ultimate outsider on the edge of a glamourous family tale. Frances Thorpe is leading a quiet, ordinary life until a road accident brings her into the orbit of the privileged, dazzling Kyte family. Not one to miss an opportunity, Frances slowly works her way into their world. Immediately gripping, painfully accurate and with a bucolic setting at odds with its uneasy interloper, this is a disturbing thriller with family psychology at its core.
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
The queen of the genre, every book Kate Morton writes effortlessly connects her research with deeply layered family mysteries. As a reader, we are drawn into her fully-drawn worlds, often across generations and countries, and as writers we marvel at the artistry of her writing and the way her stories come together so seamlessly. Although it is difficult to pick a favourite, The Forgotten Garden with its spectacular setting on the Cornish coastline, an unexpected family inheritance and long-kept secrets, is one of her best.
The Wych Elm, by Tana French
The Wych Elm of the title stands majestic in the garden of the Ivy House, a beloved family home and currently under the custodianship of Uncle Hugo. After a brutal attack, Toby Hennessy returns to the Ivy House to recover and to help care for his uncle, a genealogist. The discovery of a human skull hidden within the trunk of the wych elm is the starting point for this twisty, turny crime novel that speaks as much about history and secrets and the roles people play in families as it does about the shocking crime that it unravels.
The Hand that First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell
All of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels pack an emotional punch and play with time and memory. Her debut, After You’d Gone, explores the deep family secrets that come to light after an accident, but her later novel, The Hand that First Held Mine, digs further into family mystery territory. Weaving together two seemingly disparate storylines, one set in the London Soho art scene of the 1950s and the other in the present day, O’Farrell slowly teases out the memories of the characters at the same time as creating tension and intrigue.
The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
While not strictly having a mystery at their core it is hard to overlook the Cazalet Chronicles. With their incisive exploration of family dynamics they are the ultimate glimpse into the inner workings and emotional life of an alluring fictional family. As much a social history of the time in which they are set – over a decade from 1937– as they are a character study in multiple, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s quartet and follow up novel are the ultimate multigenerational family books and the perfect escapist read for troubled times.