7 Books about Gripping Family Secrets

Thao Thai, author of "Banyan Moon," recommends stories that explore all that’s unsaid between family members

Green and white Spanish moss grows along a swaying willow tree.
Photo by Jessica Furtney via Unsplash

I was a teenager before I learned my father’s real name. During a trip back to Vietnam in my twenties, I discovered he had more children after me, half-siblings I’d never met. It wasn’t until my thirties that I learned how my parents fell in love—over books—and how their story ended, with an unanswered letter my mother sent across the world. I often imagined my father as Bluebeard with his hidden trunk, and thought that if I could ask the right questions—find the right key—he would reveal himself to me. He never did, not really, but I still couldn’t stop searching.

This is all to say that I know something about family secrets, the kind that burrow under all the other stories we hold up to the light. These secrets reveal not only the difficult facts of the past, but how we’ve  evolved into the people we are today. They tell the messier stories of human nature, bringing us closer to rage, despair, and, if we’re lucky, forgiveness.

When I set out to write my novel, Banyan Moon, I knew that family secrets would be a central theme. In the book, Ann Tran inherits a crumbling old house in the swamplands of Florida from her deceased grandmother, Minh, a survivor of the Vietnam War. Ann and her estranged mother, Hương, spend months sorting through Minh’s hoarded burdens: walls of creepy dolls, yellowing linen tablecloths, piles of unread magazines. One day, in the musty old attic, Ann comes across a locked trunk that holds the greatest burden of all, a secret that will change the way each of the Tran women interpret their stories—and how they see each other.

The books that captivate me are the ones that explore the dark spaces between families—all that’s unsaid. Often, that’s where we can find humanity and love, no matter how warped. In the end, despite my investigative tendencies, the revelation of the family secret hardly seems the point. The point lies in our desire to search for that darkness, all for a chance to grasp at the truths that bind us. 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

In 2016, on a whim, reporter Shapiro sends in a sample of her DNA to a genealogy website. To her shock, she discovers that the man who raised her isn’t, in fact, her biological father. Deeply unsettled by this revelation, she grapples with questions about what her parents chose to hide from her, and why. With the help of her husband (also a reporter), Shapiro follows a series of winding threads that take her across the country, where she must navigate the impacts of science, technology, and record-keeping on her own life. In the end, she must determine what constitutes identity, and the extent to which we’ll go to open the closed doors of the past.

Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Phong Nguyễn, a Vietnamese Amerasian who is Black, is trying to immigrate to America with his family for a better life. However, government officials decide to halt the visa process until he can find concrete evidence that he is the product of a union between a Vietnamese woman and an American G.I., as he’s always been told. This sends him into a frustrating quest with many dead ends and faulty assumptions. Meanwhile, former helicopter pilot Dan returns with his wife Linda to Vietnam in order to try to heal from past trauma as a soldier. But what Dan doesn’t tell his wife is that his secret mission is to find Kim, a Vietnamese mistress he’d kept from Linda during the war. In another timeline, we learn about sisters Trang and Quỳnh, who escape to Saigon in the 1970s to work as bar girls whose job is to entertain American soldiers. All three stories intersect in surprising and touching ways that continue to remind us of the impacts of the war on the Vietnamese people.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

In Georgia, Ailey Pearl Garfield navigates her life between Atlanta and Chicasetta, her rural hometown where her family still lives. Ailey’s thirst for education takes her from her predominantly white high school to Routledge, a historically Black college where her beloved Uncle Root teaches. She wants to be a historian, which prompts her to look back into the history of her family. What she discovers is a more tangled story than she could have ever imagined, illuminating themes of class, colorism, inheritance, and deep ancestral trauma. This epic book is a riveting, unforgettable story of the American South, both past and present.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk about: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence by Michele Filgate

This essay collection gathers fifteen of the most celebrated voices in contemporary literature—Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, André Aciman, to name a few—to write about the silences between mothers and their children. Here, each author explores seminal experiences from their childhood, such as what it was like to have a deaf mother; whether one can share too much with one’s psychotherapist mother; how to have a relationship with a mother without mediation from a controlling father. Full of heartbreak and hope, this collection articulates the nuanced love we hold for our mothers, well into adulthood.

Black Candle Women by Diane Marie Brown

Four generations of Montrose women all have one thing in common: the mysterious curse that dooms the people they fall in love with to die sudden deaths. Little is known about this curse, except that it originated in New Orleans nearly half a century ago, in a world of powerful hoodoo. In present-day California, Willow and Victoria live in peace with Victoria’s daughter Nickie, until the day Nickie brings a young man home for dinner. This unleashes a series of events that shakes the core of the family, scattering all three women across the country, toward their destinies. Their only hope of reunification is to break the curse, but that means unlocking their silent matriarch Augusta’s past—a near impossible task.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

In this memoir, Chung deftly weaves an important story about her experience as a transracial adoptee, and how she came to find her birth family. Growing up, she’d been told the myth that her birth parents sacrificed for a better life. In reality, the story was far more complicated. When Chung became pregnant with her own daughter, she decided to reopen the tidy narratives of her past in order to search for the truth. By transposing her own story with that of her birth sister, Cindy’s, readers are able to follow Chung’s journey to unveiling secrets that transform her relationships—and her own identity as a Korean American woman.

Weyward by Emilia Hart

In 2019, Kate is running from an abusive relationship that has taken everything from her. With nowhere to go, she flees to ramshackle Weyward Cottage, bequeathed to her by a great-aunt she hardly remembers. There, among her great-aunt’s belongings, she discovers hints of a centuries-old secret that whispers of magic and violence. Meanwhile, during the second world war, rebellious Violet seeks a way to free herself from the life of convention her father expects of her. As she comes into her own gifts, she begins to ask probing questions about her mother, who died of sudden and mysterious circumstances when she was a child. Her father’s refusal to answer only stokes Violet’s curiosity and determination. In the third timeline, Altha is on trial for witchcraft in the 17th century. She’s been accused of murdering a neighbor, and the final verdict is all too clear to her. These women must fight the desperation of their own circumstances to find their way to freedom—and maybe even joy. Together, their stories paint a compelling portrait of resilience, a trait passed down through the centuries in the Weyward clan, along with the secrets of the past.

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