The Prose Practice – Family Histories

Last week I introduced a new feature here at Savidge Reads and that was ‘The Prose Practice’ and already we have our very first problem. Yes a reader of this blog has already sent in a bookish problem that they are having. This actually was initially (I added a little bit) left in one of the comments from the previous post and so I thought I would pop the conundrum from one of my lovely readers Linda who resides in the Peak District (so not far from Granny Savidge Reads I imagine) who came up with this prose based puzzle…

I thought this imae appropriate until we can find something more apt!Dear Savidge Readers
I’ve been spending the morning on puzzling through the web of my late mother’s papers on our family history in order to help a cousin solve some gaps in his knowledge. I enjoy novels that feature several generations, especially if a family tree is included. Can anyone recommend a contemporary novel where someone is trying to find out about their past (not necessarily a crime or period genre)? Or a novel that contains a family saga of many generations?
Many thanks,

Simon Says: I have to say I am rather looking forward to hearing what everyone else says in regard to this as I am a little stumped if I am 100% honest with you particularly on the books about someone discovering their past, I am going to have to mull that one over. I am weirdly thinking of ‘coming of age stories’ (a phrase I hate) to recommend but I don’t think that’s what you are after. Family saga’s I am hopefully going to be a little better on. The most recent one I have read and really been impressed by was The House at the Mosque by Kader Abdolah which is the tale of a family through generations in Iran. I am wracking my brains for more but clearly this is the sort of book I have been missing out on too.

So dear readers what helpful hints and delightful reads can you recommend for someone looking for a book about a multi generational family saga and a great book or two where someone is trying to find out their past?



Oh and a quick update on the last weeks issue. Thanks all for your suggestions some of them are now in a separate TBR on The Converted Ones bedside table and they have actually received some nods of interest which is a most rare event.

However, as I have told a few of you in comments and emails, since the post went up a random event took place. Whilst we were stood waiting for a tube on Thursday I heard ‘oooh, I would really like to read that book’. After picking my jaw up from the floor, as this never ever happens, I looked over at the poster and it was a book I would not have chosen in a million years… ‘The Strain’ by Guillermo Del Toro. So you might just be getting a guest post on this book in the not too distant future from The Converted One. Well I never!





Filed under The Prose Practise

31 responses to “The Prose Practice – Family Histories

  1. For sprawling family trees, it’s hard to beat One Hundred Years of Solitude! And while it doesn’t really have a struggling to find out about one’s family past, there’s a document running throughout that I think several family members over a couple of generations try to decode.

  2. What a great question! I can think of several.As we are recommending books for a lady, I would highly recommend Rosamund Pilcher’s novels September and The Shell Seekers, which are all about generations of families and The Shell Seekers is also very much about the main character Penelope, an elderly woman, resurrecting her parents’ past through clearing out the house she lives in. Perfect I think!

    Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple also excellently fits the multi generational family saga well but it’s out of print. Hungry Hill by Daphne Du Maurier is another brilliant book about multiple generations of the same family and it’s just come back into print – well worth reading. I’ll try and think of some more and come back later!

  3. Kinga

    I loved Poland by Michener, but I read that a long time ago so am not sure I’d love it as much.

    Recently, I’ve read A Suitable Boy, which was fabulous and very multi-generation with several families interacting and it was a great read.

  4. Off the top of my head: For investigation-discovery of family history (contemporary novel), I recommend ze ff, some of them with my thoughts:
    1] Change Baby, by June Spence.
    2] The Gin Closet, by Leslie Jamison.

    For a contemporary novel turning the family-tree shtick on its head:
    1] The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields.
    2] One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    Oh, and I wish you all the best on your own family-history-hunting. 🙂

  5. Susan Howatch has written some excellent multi-generational family sagas. I recommend Penmarric, Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune.

  6. About tracing the family how about: ‘The Glass Blower of Murano’ by Marina Fiorato and ‘The Virgin Blue’ by Tracey Chevalier.

  7. I would also recommend Hungry Hill which I read over the holidays, and also Rosamund Pilcher books. If you want a really long saga then you should try the Poldark novels.

    Great question and great feature on the blog!

  8. For a finding out about your past book I seem to remember ‘My Name is Light’ by Elsa Osorio is somewhat like that, though based in Argentina. A good family saga is The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan, which is based in India.

  9. Oh yes, the Stone Diaries is very good. So is Unless, also by Carol Shields.

    Anne Tyler is very much along this theme too. Anything by her is very family oriented.

  10. For a book that uses family history to drive the narrative I’d definitely recommend The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. It was on the Orange New Writer’s shortlist a couple of years ago and is about a young woman trying to unravel the mystery of her parentage. At first she is only concerned with identifying her father, but the more she digs the more she finds. The book is told in multiple voices by the heroine and her ancestors, and is set in various periods from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Oh, and it has a loch Ness type monster in it. I thought it was brilliant. 🙂

    I reviewed it at Alexandria:

  11. Multi-generational epics:

    Two classics: The Forsythe Saga – John Galsworthy ; Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann
    I cast a third vote for Daphne Du Maurier’s Hungry Hill

    Researching secrets from the past:
    Possession – A S Byatt

  12. Linda P

    Simon, thank you for picking up on my original question and I’m afraid I probably got it all wrong in the first place with regard to what you wanted i.e. follow-up suggestions re. a book problem question – so your one question was sufficient for one post, of course.
    Thank you blogging friends for your suggestions.
    (My late mother, a prolific reader, wrote lists of the books she read up into her late 80’s, and I still have her little book of notes. She appreciated authors such as Rosamund Pilcher, Howatch, but she read very widely). I prefer contemporary novels and short stories but it’s good to be open to the adventure of reading widely, so I’m going to follow up on suggestions, get out some of my Carol Shields collection and refresh my memory. The Gin Closet – Jamison sounds intriguing!

  13. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende is a generations-spanning family saga, I can’t think of any more at the moment… 🙂

  14. The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe comes to mind as a woman’s life is investigated by a relative through the cassette tapes she left behind. Also Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster or Any Human Heart by William Boyd while not multi-generation, do trace one person’s life through the twentieth century. All are super reads.

  15. I won’t be answering every comment as they are recommendations I haven’t heard of in the main but believe me I will be hunting some down.

    I just had a twitter conversation with the author Lisa Jewell (her book A Friend of the Family is a secret Savidge fav) recommended her book The Truth About Melody Brown and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. I haven’t read the first but so should have thought of the second. Also The Secret Scripture by Sebastien Barry is another!

  16. novelinsights

    Ooh ooh, I have one. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about a family history and crime, AND has a family tree at the front. Hope that helps!

  17. Perhaps Consequences and The Family Album, both by Penelope Lively? And The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro most definitely.

    I’d also recommend Iris & Ruby by Rosie Thomas and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell for dealing with multigenerational family mysteries.

    And though they’re not contemporary, anything by R.F. Delderfield is usually guaranteed to include a family tree. I’m a particular fan of the Horseman Riding By triology (which begins with Long Summer’s Day).

  18. gaskella

    Can’t help with recommendations for this problem – but I would like to read ‘The Strain!’

  19. I agree with Claire. I immediately thought of Consequences by Penelope Lively. I think it covers maybe three generations and it is a wonderful book.

  20. The first one that came to mind: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. It’s told partially in modern day and partially in the past, as a woman tries to piece together her mother’s stories about her early life that are making less and less sense.

    Then my librarian self decided to see what subject headings worked. Genealogy–Fiction yielded more than thirty results in my catalog, so it would be a good starting place too!

  21. With regard to someone researching his past, the book that sprang to my mind was W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Whilst for me it fell into the category of books I admired more than enjoyed, many readers have raved about it. Be warned there are no paragraphs!

    Simon, I don’t think you should feel that you have to respond to every comment individually, so it’s good that you don’t intend to. I like the new look to your blog, although I am finding the font in this comments box incredibly small. Are you trying to get us to be more concise? 🙂 I’ve got on board the Twitter bandwagon now, if that doesn’t force me to be more sparing with words nothing will.

  22. Darla LaRoche

    My 22 year old son highly recommends The Strain. He said it is a story of vampires and zombies combined. It is written by the guy who did Pan’s Labyrinth.

  23. i have to second (and possibly third or fourth) the recommendations made above for One Hundred Years of Solitude. not only is a sweeping family saga, but it is an amazingly profound book that explores every facet of human emotion.

    another book that i don’t think was mentioned above is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

  24. I love this post, as the comments constitute another post (and another list of books we might all want to try). I want to put in a word for a beautiful novel by Nuala O’Faolain called My Dream of You. In it a travel writer researches a scandalous love story from the historical past, while also thinking back to her own family history.

  25. Isabel

    I won’t mention books that are mentioned in previous posts.

    Linda can check my reviews on my blog for details.

    There’s a tv show about finding ancestors. Full episodes can be view on the web:

    The Locust and the Bird – Hanan al-Shaykh

    The Red Leather Diary – Lily Koppel

    Novels – multi-generational
    In the Time of the Butterflies – Julia Alvarez

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

    Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

    Kabbalah – A Love Story – Rabbi Lawrence Kushner(story of a book)

    Falling Leaves – Return to Their Roots: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter – Adeline Yen Mah

    The Glass Room – Simon Mawer (follows a house’s history)

    A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller, Jr. (not a family, but an order of Catholic priests)

    New York – Edward Rutherfurd
    (check out his other books also)

    Consolation – Michael Redhill

    Peony in Love – Lisa See

    The Book of Fathers – Miklos Vamos

    Cloudstreet – Tim Winton

    After the Fire, a Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

    • mee

      I second Falling Leaves. But that’s actually a memoir/biography.

      Another comes to mind is Wild Swans by Jung Chang (I haven’t read that one, though highly recommended by many)

  26. The first book that comes to mind is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I read it this year and really enjoyed it. It’s the story of a hemephrodite who tells the epic story of her family history which she explores, tracing back to her immigrant grandparents right until present time, in order to find out where she came from. It definitely ticks the box of a family saga, family tree, a character trying to find out about her past and includes several generation, all whilst simultaneously providing the most original perspective. Massively recommended.

  27. I almost forgot:

    Through Black Spruce – Joseph Boyden

  28. I adore “Basil Street Blues” by Michael Holroyd and reviewed it here: (I hope that works!). It is a multi generational family memoir by the brilliant biographer of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John etc – it really is a splendid read. I think that there is a family tree – the is certainly an excellent balance of story and detective work and Holroyd is a really engaging writer.

    Wonderful post


  29. Everything is Illuminated is still quite trendy and a complicated tale of searching for family history.

  30. mee

    I have to chip in on this one. One of my favorite book ever is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and that has all the family saga that you want!

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