The Sunday Magazine

Fiction about complicated families to help you navigate holiday dysfunction

The holidays can shine an unwelcome spotlight on family dysfunction. Canadian writers Randy Boyagoda, Sharon Bala and Elizabeth Hay share their favourite novels and short stories about the difficulties and joys of family relationships.
Canadian writers Sharon Bala, Randy Boyagoda and Elizabeth Hay shared their favourite novels and short stories about the difficulties and joys of family life. (Nadra Ginting/Chris Donovan/Mark Fried)

Tolstoy once wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

George Burns was of the opinion that, "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family — in another city."

Whether they're large or small, families are complicated organisms, infused with affection, warmth and joy — or jealousy, grievances, and hurt. Sometimes all at the same time. And the "happy holiday season" tends to exaggerate, and exacerbate, a family's peccadillos. 

Michael Enright asked Randy Boyagoda, the author of Original Prin; Sharon Bala, the author of The Boat People; and Elizabeth Hay, author of All Things Consoled, for their favourite novels and short stories about complicated families. 

 Here are their recommendations. 

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner

William Faulkner's 1929 novel is about the disintegration of a Southern family. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Penguin Random House)

Randy Boyagoda: "As a professor of English at the University of Toronto, one of my areas of research is into Faulkner's fiction, but that started when I was an undergraduate and my parents divorced. To this day, I have tried to figure out why Faulkner appealed to me so much. This suburban, first-generation immigrant story [of a marriage not working out] — how did I deal with that? I became kind of obsessed with Faulkner."

"It's the story of this once-noble Mississippi family that has kind of broken apart due to kind of marital breakdown, children not working out. There's no direct parallels whatsoever from Faulkner's novel — which is a very difficult modernist novel, part of it a narrative by a mentally [disabled] man — there's no there are no parallels between that and the situation of my family. And I think that's why I turned to it. There was enough space and difference between the text and what I was living through that I found a way to both escape and think about family difficulties through a great book."

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie's new novel Home Fire reimagines the Greek tragedy Antigone, to explore the lives of families of ISIS recruits. (Zain Mustafa/Penguin Random House)

Sharon Bala: "The book is a retelling of Sophocles's Antigone, but it's set in the present. It's about three siblings — Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz. They are British but they're also Muslim. Their parents died when they were quite young, and Isma, the eldest sister is about ten years older than her younger siblings, who are twins, so she sort of raises them. It's a story about their complicated relationship, where the elder sister is almost in the role of mother. [It's] a prodigal son story, which I think is one of the first family stories in western civilization. Parvaiz is the prodigal son. He gets radicalized. He goes to join the media arm of ISIS. Then the two sisters, once they find this out, are in this position of having to decide what are they going to do."

"There's a second family in the book, which is the British home secretary's family. He is also British and comes from a Muslim family, but he's turned his back on the Muslim community and is trying to raise his kids as if they don't have that cultural background at all."

"I think there's concentric circles of family happening in the book. There's the two families, but then there's also a larger thing about the cultural family — the Muslim community in this small part of London. And then there's the larger question of the family of the U.K., if we think of a population as being a family — a very dysfunctional family in this case. When one of their own goes off to join ISIS and then gets in trouble and wants to leave and come back home, how are they going to respond to that?"

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

Elizabeth Hay says Lizzie Bennet, the main character of Pride and Prejudice, demonstrates the "art of self-defense against condescension." (Public domain/Penguin Random House Vintage Classic)

Elizabeth Hay: "Jane Austen is just so very wise about families. In this case it's the Bennets, their five daughters. But Lizzie is the main one. Her family is really in some ways her salvation, and in other ways her ruin."

"She has to navigate them, and visitors who come into the family, and to watch her navigate is just wonderful. She takes down the people who are trying to take her down, and she manages to hold her own without being nasty. This, I suppose, is my great ambition in life — to hold my own without being nasty, and I don't think I've ever really managed it."

"In Pride and Prejudice I think what you're seeing is really the art of self-defense against condescension. So these very condescending people who try to impose themselves on her, whether it's Darcy or Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Bingley's sisters, she manages to deal with them and she triumphs. She has that wonderful line — 'My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.'"

Middlemarch - George Eliot

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. (Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade/Penguin Classics)

Randy Boyagoda: "I can remember reading Middlemarch for the first time as an undergraduate. My professor said, 'I am so happy for all of you, because you are about to begin a lifelong relationship to a world and a group of people.'"

"Middlemarch, with its arrangement of characters and lives, gives you an entry point to this world at every station and point in your own life — whether you are a young person, a middle-aged person trying to figure out career and family, an older person trying to figure out what your lifetime project would be. And that's the beauty of the book. You see the book, and the world, in a completely different way, because you identify with a different character's set of experiences every time you read it. That's why I think Middlemarch matters, in the context of reading in of itself, but then also for family life. You see family from a different perspective each time in."

To Every Thing There is A Season (short story) - Alistair MacLeod

Elizabeth Hay says Alistair MacLeod's short story To Every Thing There is a Season is about leaving childhood for the adult world, and the importance of family. (The Canadian Press/Penguin Random House)

Elizabeth Hay: "It's only nine pages long and it moves like a piece of music. You have this narrator who's looking back to when he was an 11-year-old boy in Cape Breton. He's still enough of a boy that he half-clings to the idea of Santa Claus, and he's waiting for Christmas and he's waiting for his oldest brother to come home from Ontario. This is Neal, who's 19 years old, and he's been working on a lake boat in the Great Lakes. Then Neal arrives, to great joy on the part of all the members of this family, and Neal sees his father and how his father's health has declined since he last saw him. In fact, his father is dying."

A Cape Breton Christmas. An eleven-year-old boy shares his family's Christmas at home, in the late Alistair MacLeod's short story, "To Every Thing There is a Season."

"So this is a story about the passage of time, and it's about leaving childhood for what Alistair MacLeod calls the adult side of the world, and leaving this world altogether. It's about the importance of family. He calls the sight of this group around the Christmas tree, giving and receiving gifts, 'the tableau of their care.' So it's their care and concern for each other, their various worries that they have."

We're All in This Together - Amy Jones

Amy Jones won the 2006 CBC Literary Prize for Short Fiction. (Jason Spun/Spun Creative/McClelland & Stewart)

Sharon Bala: "It's about a family called the Parkers. The book is set in Thunder Bay, and it begins with the matriarch of the family going over the Kakabeka Falls in a whiskey barrel. Some tourists happen to catch it on cellphone footage. It goes up on YouTube, becomes a viral sensation. She survives, but she's in the hospital, unconscious, and now the whole family has to come back together. Again, it's a kind of prodigal child story because the main character of the story is a daughter called Finn, an adult daughter who's left Thunder Bay and gone to live in Mississauga. And now the family has to come together and deal with this mother."

"What I love about the story is that there's a lot of humour, but there's also darkness, and you get the story from multiple points of view. So you see each person in the family their own perspective. In this case, Finn's twin sister Nikki, there there's a thing that happened between them long ago, and it drove them apart. They also have a brother who's adopted, who feels like he's not really part of the family. There's a lot of humour but there's also a lot of serious stuff in the book as well. And I think Amy Jones balances the two really well."

Original Prin - Randy Boyagoda

Randy Boyagoda is the author of Original Prin. (Biblioasis/Chris Donovan)

Randy Boyagoda: "My number three is, with a certain amount of apology, my own novel Original Prin, because it's my first book of autobiographical fiction. The novel is about a 40-something Sri Lankan, Catholic, bike-riding English professor working at a failing Catholic college in downtown Toronto. He is a father, a son and a husband all at the same time, and is pulled in all of these directions."

"His university is going to shut down. They have to open a satellite campus in the Middle East. He wants to do this for his family. He's coming out of a prostate cancer diagnosis. That part is not autobiographical. But the point is my mother, my mother's new partner, my father, my wife, our four children, my mother-in-law — they're all able to find versions of people that they might understand as themselves in this book. So the active life of my family and the life of the family in this book interact in ways that that help me, frankly, think through a lot of what it means to to have these various kinds of responsibilities and commitments, and to be pulled in different ways within a family itself."

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen  - P. G. Wodehouse

Elizabeth Hay says listening to the audiobook of P. G. Wodehouse's 1974 novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen had her family in "tears of laughter." (Public domain/The Overlook Press)

Elizabeth Hay: "This is the last book that Wodehouse finished. It came out in 1974. He died in 1975. So it's a very late Jeeves. He carried this Edwardian world with him to the end. It's very short and it moves like the wind, and it gives us family in a couple of ways. You've got Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, who are their own unconventional family. They live together. They're definitely co-dependent."

Bertie Wooster is always being worked upon by his aunts, these overbearing aunts who are trying to bend him to their will. In Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, it's Aunt Dahlia, of whom he's really quite fond. He calls her 'the old flesh and blood' or 'aged relative.' The plot hinges on her demands that he kidnap a cat so that she can win this horse race."

Our Animal Hearts - Dania Tomlinson

Sharon Bala says Our Animal Hearts is about a girl coming of age in a dysfunctional family. (Brad Tomlinson/Anchor Canada)

Sharon Bala: "It's about the Sparks family. This book is set in the Okanagan in the early 1900s. One of the things I love about books that are set in this time period is that you, as the reader, know that the First World War is coming, and of course the characters don't. The book is told from the point of view of Iris, who's the daughter in the family. It's her coming-of-age story, but she's coming of age, first of all, in a time that is marching toward war, but also coming of age in this very dysfunctional family.

"Her father is often physically absent. He goes back to England quite a bit for work, and her mother is often emotionally and mentally absent, because her mother has these fits and she claims that she sees visions during these fits. It's a very fantastical, fabulist sort of book. So it's not clear if what she's seeing is actually real, and other people can't see it, or if she's mentally ill."

"Basically, [the Sparks] are squatters in the Okanagan. They're here as settlers. They've pushed out the Indigenous population. There's an Indigenous character named Henry who's there, and then there's a family that comes from Japan, and then there's another family that comes from Ukraine. All these people are sort of living together."

"If you think about the population of Canada as being one big dysfunctional family, some of the roots of that dysfunction are explored here, where there are these different groups of squatters on Indigenous land, and they're all fighting against each other all the time and there's a whole sense of who belongs here."

Other books mentioned in the panel:

The Double Hook - Sheila Watson

Long Day's Journey into Night - Eugene O'Neill

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Edward Albee

Bala, Boyagoda and Hay's comments have been edited and condensed. Click "listen" above to hear the full conversation. 


  • The description of William Faulkner’s book has been changed to indicate one of the narrators is mentally disabled.
    Dec 17, 2018 8:35 AM ET


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