Maame Blue shares five inspiring complex literary relationships of all kinds in conjunction with her upcoming online course ‘It’s Not Me It’s You: How to Write About Complicated Relationships’ May – June 2021.
I love reading about complicated relationships, and for me the best ones have to be both fascinating and frustrating. Whether because of the circumstances, the characters or the setting, it doesn’t matter. So here are just five of my favourite literary relationships, each painting a unique and complex picture of the different ways two characters can interact.
1. Vivek and Osita from The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Have you ever read something so visceral, that for a brief moment it was like it was happening to you? That for me, is the mark of a fully realised character on the page, which sets the tone for an incredibly real and impactful relationship. The one between Vivek and their cousin Osita, is just that. Their relationship is complicated because it is unconventional in its development, but it spills off the page with a passion that is often hard to convey unless the reader really cares about what happens to the book’s characters. And you cannot help but care about what happens to Vivek and Osita, especially because the premise of the book – a death – lets the reader know immediately that they are in for a ride framed by grief, which means anything can happen. And anything does. Vivek’s tenderness is in direct contrast with Osita’s blunt but all-consuming devotion, yet somehow, it works.
2. Elena and Lila from My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
This is by far one of my favourite depictions of adolescent female friendship. Told from the perspective of Elena about her ‘brilliant friend’ Lila, the reader is invited into a world of insecurity, obsession, competition and adoration. This is not to say that all female friendships start this way, but growing up as a young girl in a male-dominated society, you’d be hard-pressed not to see yourself in either of these characters. And Elena and Lila are fascinating because they adore each other, but in very different, often unhealthy ways, against a backdrop of poverty, angst and societal expectation. If anything, the word ‘friend’ is used liberally and feels at times, highly inappropriate. I love it.
3. Peter Keating and Howard Roark from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
This is a controversial book and a bit like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it. But aside from its political implications, what has drawn me back to The Fountainhead has always been the intricate way the characters are drawn. Peter and Howard are a masterclass in writing fully realised characters that you can detest and still care immensely about. More specifically, the way these two characters are pitted against each other and the way they interact, is almost too real and too sad to not engage with. Howard is framed as the diamond-in-the-rough hero of the story (though incredibly flawed in lots of ways), and Peter is the popular, good looking cad without the substance and talent Howard has (or so he believes), who gets a leg up in society with the help of Howard, but does little to return the favour. We’re supposed to love Howard and hate Peter, but because they are so fully realised, the reader can feel however they want to feel about these two. They’re friends, but not really, and what a salacious relationship that creates on the page.
4. Reese and Jude from The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
I personally love love stories, but my favourites are those found within the pages of books that are not romance novels. The Vanishing Half is about many things including colourism, white privilege and belonging. But hidden in the nooks of the story are also those about love, and Reese and Jude are a welcome salve for the harsher, more painful elements of the book. They swagger into existence as a couple that perseveres in the midst of their own individual struggles and trauma. Their relationship isn’t a statement for anything, but rather an example of what happens when two characters come together, thrive with each other, and helpfully present a contrast to other relationships within the same novel that are problematic, imperfect and frustrating. Sometimes, love really is the answer.
5. Jenny and Hank from Love Orange by Natasha Randall
‘The Significant Others’
The notion of marriage on the page has always interested me. As a lover of rom-coms, I’m overly familiar with the story ending when a wedding happens, when we all know that the most interesting part comes after that. Love Orange takes the reader deep inside the lives of Jenny and Hank, comfortably married with two boys, somewhat underwhelmed by it all and both searching for meaningful distractions from the mundanity of doing what you’re ‘supposed to do’. Both characters are separate in their motivations and constantly misunderstand each other, from their first coming together as a couple through to many years later when married and living in a hi-tech house together. It’s the constant silent friction between them that makes them a captivating couple. Jenny chases substance in her life (in more ways than one) whilst Hank wades through the waters of toxic masculinity to teach his boys a thing or two (including things he doesn’t know), and both never fully come together as a united front; rather they emerge as a badly welded together ball and chain. But the journey they take to get there is amusing, a little heartbreaking and as with most literary relationships that fascinate me, extremely frustrating. Would read again.
Maame Blue is a Ghanaian writer and co-host of Headscarves and Carry-ons – a podcast about black women living abroad – who splits her time between London and Melbourne. Her work has appeared in various places including Black Ballad, The Independent, AFREADA, Litro Magazine, Storm Cellar Quarterly (USA) and The Good Journal; and in 2020 she joined a scriptwriting team to remix a telenovela for African broadcast. Her short story Howl was also published in the New Australian Fiction 2020 anthology, and her debut novel Bad Love was long-listed for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize and chosen by Cheltenham Literature Festival as one of their top three debuts of 2020. She has works forthcoming in 2021 and is cautiously working on her second novel.
You can find out more about Maame’s upcoming online course and book a place at: www.spreadtheword.org.uk/events/its-not-me-its-you-how-to-write-about-complicated-relationships-with-maame-blue/
Published 8 April 2021