Ingrid Persaud’s family melodrama If I Never Went Home draws readers into the intersecting worlds of Tina, a young girl living in Trinidad, and Bea, a Trini woman living in Boston. The novel’s greatest strengths are its intimate and vivid depiction of daily life in Trinidad and its memorable characters. Even the minor characters are complex and surprising.
The narrative moves back and forth between Tina and Bea. Tina tells her own story in a first- person colloquial voice while Bea’s story comes to readers through a more distant third-person narration that occasionally shifts to a secondary character. Bea is the protagonist. but Tina’s voice makes her the more compelling of the two. The connection between Bea and Tina is murky through most of the novel, but they share one experience: both are alienated from their families.
In Bea’s case, the alienation begins in childhood when her parents split up. Her father and all his family disown her because she chooses to live with her mother. Over time Bea’s relationship with her selfish mother grows strained. Later, a betrayal leads to a breakdown in communication between them. The turmoil in her family takes a toll on Bea. She is a university professor with colleagues but no close friends. She suffers from intermittent depression. After a breakup with a boyfriend, she attempts suicide and is hospitalized for several weeks. The experience leads her to change careers and become a psychologist.
Tina’s story begins with her living happily with her mother. One Sunday as they walk home after church, her mother is hit by a van and dies. Nobody knows who Tina’s father is, so her maternal grandmother reluctantly takes her in. From that point on, Tina feels tolerated rather than wanted. Even her cousin becomes standoffish. When she reaches her rebellious teens and disrespects her grandmother, the fireworks begins.
While the twists and turns of the plots are interesting, the convoluted narrative structure keeps the story from gaining momentum. The novel requires readers to make sudden leaps in time and space. In one section Bea attends her father’s funeral and spots Tina as a small child. In the next, Tina is ten years older. To complicate matters further, Bea’s story alternates between her life as a psychologist and her stint as a mental patient. Although Persaud manages the shifts competently, I found myself becoming impatient. I couldn’t see any pattern governing them until I was two-thirds into the novel. It’s too long to wait.
The end does provide a payoff, one that offers emotional satisfaction without falling into sentimentality. And the novel’s vivid sense of place makes it well worth reading.