7 Novels About Family Curses
Renée Branum, author of "Defenestrate," recommends stories about myths and beliefs inherited from each generation
I have always held a keen interest toward the processes of myth formation and how beliefs about family identity are handed down through generations. My debut novel Defenestrate tells the story of a family in the midst of reckoning with superstition and inheritance, the long-held beliefs that can shape both the collective identity of a family unit and the individual identities of its members. While working on my novel, I was drawn to books that embark on a similar exploration of what characters inherit as individuals through the traditions, superstitions, and beliefs that get handed down through generations, and how those beliefs get shaped through each new inheritance.
In Defenestrate, the narrator’s family believes that their ancestors are particularly susceptible to death and injury by falling, tracing this legacy back to the great-great-grandfather who pushed a man to his death through the window of a cathedral. The narrator investigates this tradition of vulnerability in her family by closely examining histories of falls and survival through the years, and her understanding of the family “curse” shapes her relationships and her path through the world.
The characters in the books on this reading list are frequently caught up in a journey of trying to parse what aspects of their identity belong only to them and which are inherited, and how these threads are often heavily knotted and tangled. The “curse” of inheritance that these characters tend to encounter is sometimes figurative or imagined, but not any less real to their understandings of self and belonging.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved intimately lays out the costs and repercussions of the generational curse of slavery, illustrating how the haunting of the past can manifest as completely tangible and real for the survivors of a trauma that is both lived and inherited. Sethe’s past actions in choosing to sever the inherited curse of slavery for her child are made vividly present on every page, as they shape each daily task in the ongoing struggle for survival. Morrison’s language creates a web of fiercely vocal ghosts for the reader, demonstrating a loud and vibrant aftermath that is heavily populated at every turn with Sethe’s reckonings with her refusal to let the family curse of enslavement persist.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Another novel that depicts the tidal wave of history through its impact on the individual, Train Dreams illustrates the struggle to make sense of insurmountable loss against the shifting background of the final days of the Old West. After the protagonist, Robert Grainier, loses his home and family in a wildfire, he seeks to attribute some root cause to the destruction, suspecting that his passive participation in a collective act of violence against an innocent man resulted in a curse that brought on the collapse of everything he held dear. The curse that Grainier comes to believe in has a long-reaching impact that the novel subtly traces throughout Grainier’s life, interweaving a larger portrait of westward expansion with the story of an individual’s grappling with the brutality of survival.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
This wonderfully rich and imaginative novel blurs the lines between reality and fantasy at every turn. In The Seas, the narrator makes use of a family myth claiming mermaid ancestry in order to process the pain of abandonment and unrequited love. The narrator’s steadfast belief that she is a mermaid doomed to return to the sea is, at times, so convincing, that the reader is forced to question whether the novel is depicting a world where magic is real or a world glimpsed through the lens of insanity. This unreliable first-person narration is brilliantly handled on every page and vividly demonstrates the power of inherited belief to transform perception.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
In this modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set on a vast Iowa farm, the family “curse” takes the form of duty, responsibility, and the burden of literal inheritance as the family patriarch wields his power by determining which of his three daughters will be granted a portion of his thousand-acre farm upon his death. This brilliantly told family drama investigates the complicated web of loyalties that arise within a network of family relationships, as well as how the inherited curse of silence in the face of abuse can shape a legacy of guilt and estrangement.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
It would be difficult to construct a reading list about family curses without including this one. Díaz is meticulous about shaping the origins and path of the generational curse that wreaks havoc on Oscar’s chances of finding love and success. At turns playful and heartbreaking, this novel’s scope is frequently epic in feeling, illustrating the power of storytelling to shape an inherited sense of self even across decades and nations.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This novel sets a high bar for stories about generational curses, oscillating throughout its telling between a Biblical vastness of scope and an intimate portrait of family dailiness. This book is unique on this list in that the reader sees the curse finally reach ultimate fruition and fulfillment as we realize that the legend passed down through generations was actually a displacement of the fear of the family’s ultimate dissolution and demise.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
This gorgeously lyrical novel explores one family’s fate being shaped by decades of poverty, crime, and systematic oppression. Like Beloved, we are given intimate glimpses of the ghosts that persist tangibly for the characters that encounter them. As one character, Jojo observes:
“The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.”
This family tree is indeed full of ghosts, but it also echoes the larger ghost-filled tree that is the South, where the challenge of reckoning with a legacy of injustice is a persistent constant for rural Black families.