I’m not sure that that’s true. But I do find myself wondering if there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ family. Presumably that’s why there are such rich pickings in family life for novelists.
I’m endlessly fascinated by families and how they work. The spoken and unspoken rules; the traditions and habits. The ways of doing things that seem totally normal when you are growing up – and that you only question when a friend or partner points them out to you.
The Restless Wave crosses three generations of one family. Edward, born in 1908, spends his early life in India. His childhood is shaped by strong values of service and duty. Orphaned very young, his upbringing is pretty lonely. In contrast, he goes on to have a large family, six children. One of those children is Hope, the second narrator in the book. She grows up in another era and another context: war-time and post-war Britain. For a whole number of reasons, she deliberately turns her back on her parents’ values. It’s safe to say that her parenting of her daughter Nell couldn’t be more different. And Nell’s outlook on life is different again.
Other characters bring different perspectives on family life. I don’t want to say too much more than that. Suffice it to say that much of the book is about the tussle between the generations as each character struggles with what life throws at them.
It’s only towards the end of writing a book that I seem to spot the bigger themes that overarch a storyline. In this case, I think that The Restless Wave is partly about the search for home. What does home mean if you are separated from your family? If you’ve seen your home destroyed as a result of war or disaster? How do you rebuild a life after trauma? How do you make peace with the past? And what is it that different people need to feel themselves ‘at home’?
For some, it’s a matter of being surrounded by precious possessions, perhaps with associated memories. For others, it’s the landscape that makes all the difference. For others, it’s the people, whether that’s family, the wider community, or both.
I guess the answer will be different for everyone. We probably all know people who are capable of cheerfully making themselves at home wherever they happen to be. For some, that’s much harder, and they experience a long-term sense of dislocation. Perhaps it’s a lifetime’s work to carve out a niche.
A friend married to a Welshman recently introduced me to the Welsh word hiraeth. I’m told there is no direct translation into English, but that it means a sort of homesickness, a bittersweet longing for something that is missing. It sounds to me as if there’s overlap with the ancient Greek word nostos, from which we get the English word ‘nostalgia’, which is a sort of longing for home combined with a quest. Homer’s Odyssey is the apotheosis of nostos: the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus in his ten-year quest to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Along the way he encounters shipwrecks and other trials and tribulations, but nostos propels him on.
For me, the sentiments expressed in nostos and hiraeth – if I’ve understood these untranslatable words correctly – are pretty universal. They are as much about finding our ‘home’ within our families and communities as they are about specific geographical places.
Our experience within our families is a huge part of what shapes our lives. That’s not rocket science. But one of the things that interests me as a writer is the batons that are passed down the generations without discussion or acknowledgement. The unspoken, unnamed narratives that become part of our own stories without us even knowing.
And in a sense, that’s what The Restless Wave is all about: the lifelong quest we each pursue to make peace with our pasts and find our place in the world.