Where's the Family Tree?

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Where's the Family Tree?

Family Saga Novels from Around the World

Looking for a nice long book to curl up with where you can get lost in the story of a family and the circumstances that surround them? The kind that makes you feel sad when you’ve come to the end? Maybe learn a little bit about a foreign country and its history in the bargain? Look no further. Below, in no particular order, are five novels from five authors whose love for their countries and their histories comes through in the wonderful family narratives they penned. I will also disclose here that I’ve read all of these and can definitely testify to feeling very sad upon reaching the end of each one after spending so much quality time getting to know these families - truly the mark of a great family saga.
Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann

Published in 1901, this book was cited as the main reason for Thomas Mann being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 (though this was more because of a certain committee member’s tastes; I can assure you much if not all of his work is just as worthwhile). The result is a beautiful chronicle of a wealthy Hanseatic bourgeois family’s decline through four generations from 1835 to 1877. Mann drew heavily from his own family history for this one. Although the city where the family lives is never named, it’s almost certainly Lübeck, the German ancestral home of the Mann family, based on street names and other characteristics.

Cien Años de Soledad or One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

Published in 1967 and considered García Márquez’s masterpiece, this novel is considered one of the best examples of Latin American magic realism. Beginning with the patriarch and founder of the fictional town of Macondo, José Arcadio Buendía and his wife and cousin Úrsula Iguarán, this novel tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family from the 1800s to the 1920s. The town of Macondo is a metaphor for Colombia and the Buendía family is witness to all the major events of the nascent nation, including colonial reform and independence, the coming of the railway and its economic impact, war, capitalist colonialism and exploitation, and the coming of the movies and cars.

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

At heart a love story between a lovelorn teenager and his betrothed cousin, this novel is considered one of the most popular works of fiction ever written in Iran. Published in 1973, it was made into a seminal television series that broke all records when it aired in 1976. Phrases from the book became common expressions and part of popular culture. Set during the occupation of Iran by Allied forces during World War II, most of the novel is set within a large compound where three families share a common courtyard. The Napoleon of the title is the Uncle, the tyrannical patriarch and father of the narrator’s love interest whose rivalry with the narrator’s father and paranoia regarding the Allies’ intentions toward him dominate the story. So does the boy get the girl? You’ll have to read this wonderful novel for yourself to find out.

We the Drowned, by Carsten Jensen

A debut novel from an established critic and political columnist in Denmark, this is the story of the adventures, tragedies, and losses of the people of Marstal, a town on the small island of Ærø in the Baltic Sea between 1848 and 1948, approximately. A town entirely dominated by the lure of the sea, the story begins and ends with war, the First Schleswig War between Denmark and Germany and the Second World War, and could be interpreted as the story of the birth of modern Denmark from a small Baltic nation to a global shipping powerhouse. This novel definitely complements and pays tribute to the few seafaring novels of the past, as Mr. Jensen counts down in this article. A lovingly told story of a town’s history by one of its own, the novel recounts the adventures of generations of Marstallers who went to sea, changing their own lives and those they left behind thousands of miles away, sometimes forever.

The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt

This 2009 novel from British writer A.S. Byatt begins with an artistic matriarch’s adoption of a runaway found sketching in a museum basement. Beginning in 1895 through the end of World War I, this is the story of the Wellwoods, a bohemian family of socially conscious writers and artists, and the lives of the many Wellwood children, who are influenced by their bucolic childhoods and must navigate adulthood completely unprepared for what world events have in store and where they will lead. The title refers to the set of books Olive Wellwood, the family matriarch and author whose income supports the family, writes for each one of her children. Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Award, A.S. Byatt said she was initially inspired to write this story after noting the often tragic lives children of children’s authors went on to live.