A blog by Nikki Dudley about the gaps in everyday life...


Monday, 27 September 2010

We are family, I got all my sisters, brothers, mum, dad etc with me...

So although I've titled this blog with an adapted version of a pop song from 1979, what I want to focus on is incest in books! Hmm, not necessarily the type of thing people usually want to discuss at length but lately, I seem to be reading lots of books that include incest...

It's a strange coincidence or is it a more popular trend in books? I am not sure but I felt it was worth discussing. Recently I've been reading Now You're One of Us by Asa Nonami and Invisible by Paul Auster. I have never read Asa Nonami before - it was actually a recommendation from Amazon.co.uk as I'd read a few Japanese authors recently. Paul Auster on the other hand, is one of my favourite authors. Since I read The New York Trilogy, I've been ploughing through his books with the same hunger.

Well, first off, Now You're One of Us. The premise? A young woman marries into a new family and begins to wonder if they aren't just a little too perfect. The house consists of three generations of the same family and although they are lovely to her, she is suspicious of them because one of their neighbours (who is also their tenant) tries to warn her of something and shortly after, dies in a gas explosion, along with his family. A troubling idea simply won't leave the narrators mind and she fights with her affection for the family and the idea that they were somehow involved with the man's death. I don't want to ruin the book at all. However, what troubled me slightly as a reader and what came completely out of the blue in most respects, was incest. And I don't just mean one type of incest. There were many threads here.

I really enjoyed Nonami's writing style. She is succinct, builds mystery well and accurately portrays her narrator's troubled conscience. The ending disappointed me slightly as it didn't seem to flow and the narrator abruptly changed her mind, which seemed a bit unrealistic. Nonetheless, I will be checking out more of Nonami's works.

So onto my next read. Having finished Now You're One of Us, I thought I would delve into an old familiar friend - Paul Auster. My friend brought me his new novel, Invisible, for my birthday. The premise sounded a little bit repetitive of some of his previous works but I started reading, happy to be back in Auster land. Then, out of nowhere - incest! And reasonably graphic incest. I haven't read all of Auster's books but this is definitely a new theme. I was a bit troubled in general as voluntary incest isn't something I would partake in myself (not sure if this needs to be said but I will say it!), but the graphic detail with which this went into was a little unsettling. The incest in Invisible begins as an adolescent experiment which is forgotten for a long period but resurfaces for a six month period when the siblings are much older (although this is later contested and it isn't clear if it actually occured). The love that the brother and sister feel for each other is described well but it is also spiked with Auster's matter-of-fact tone, as well as being presented as a memoir.

It may be because I read the two novels in succession (actually, I am about twenty pages from the end of Invisible) but this overload of incest got me thinking a bit. Is it something that writers are more willing to discuss now? How does the general public feel about this subject? It is really a concern that has always existed, all the way back to the old Oedipus complex but I still find it is a subject which is sometimes hard to confront. I am not sure if enough writers I know have dealt with voluntary incest. Of course, you get a lot of abuse stories but voluntary incest isn't quite as common.

There are a few other books I have read with incestuous relationships. One that particularly sticks in the mind is The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan. It may stick in the mind because it was intertwined with a story about children keeping their dead mother in the house, enjoying a summer without authority and perhaps as a consequence, the two older children indulging in an incestuous relationship. This incest almost makes more sense in terms of the story though, as if the children are trying to recreate some type of parental relationship with each other. In fact, I didn't even remember there was incest in this novel until I searched for some on Google!

The other ten books I found on Google, I hadn't read. Has anyone else read a novel with incest in it and what did you think of it? With me, I know incest occurs in real life, so as with all other things that can happen, I don't think it should be missing from literature.


  1. Interesting piece, Nikki. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides has prominent incest in it, as do Helen Dunmore's A Spell of Winter and Arunditi Roy's God of Small Things. In each of these, the sexual incest is a product of a close intimate relationship and as such, I find it a powerful additional dimension to the relationship taking place.

    Like you, I don't really see what all the fuss is about in regards voluntary incest. To me, it is not really any different to any other sexual relationship in literature, except that it is often tenderer due to its added component of being about discovery and exploration in a relatively safe context.

    I have to read some Paul Auster soon. I will read New York trilogy by the end of the year!

  2. I am reading Now You're One of Us, and now I'm a bit worried that I might be disappointed by the ending. So far (page 140) it's one of the best books I've read this year.

  3. Oh no - I'm sorry Ian! Don't mean to put you off and hope I didn't ruin any parts of the book - I always worry when I write about one on here. I actually think Nonami is one of the best writers I have encountered for a while and I can sometimes be a hard person to please with novels, so please don't be put off! Although I don't entirely agree with the direction of the book, I think it is well worth the read and I only wish more of her books were available in the UK!

  4. Hi Sam,

    sorry - meant to reply to you ages ago! I started writing a response and it got wiped so I left the blog feeling annoyed! hehe. Anyway, thanks for your comments. I have actually read The God of Small Things and I have no recollection of incest! I just remember the book having a lot of imagery and a very violent act near the end. Shows how much I pay attention!

    I have to say I am not sure I don't see what the fuss is about with voluntary incest quite like you said. It definitely makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, particularly between certain groups or several members of the same family. I do agree that a novel is a place for exploration in a safe context though. Humans often wonder about what they are capable of and what possibilities they could take in the world and it is more than healthy to explore these things in art, rather than going out and doing it! If this weren't the case, I would be a murderer myself! ;)



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