I read Dennis-Benn’s first novel, Here Comes the Sun, just over two years ago now. And while I’m terrible at remembering details from all the books I’ve read (which is actually part of why I started writing reviews in the first place), I do usually manage to hang onto feelings. And I know after I finished it, I felt heavy and my mind was running fast to react to everything. I also remember that the writing was something special. Anyways, when I saw that Dennis-Benn had written a second novel, I knew that I’d eventually pick it up. However, the speed at which I did so was increased by rave reviews from a few very trusted sources for literary and diverse fiction on bookstagram (@readingismagical and @allisonreadsdc). Of note, I do think this second novel was even better that the first.
This story follows two main characters. Primarily, we have the titular Patsy, who, as a young woman, finally gets her long-awaited visa to travel to America. She dreams of reuniting with her first love, Cicely, who has been there for years now. The fact that she must leave behind her super-religious mother and 5-year-old daughter, Tru, is difficult, but a necessary part of following this long-wanted path. The other is Patsy’s daughter, Tru, who remains behind in Jamaica and grows up in her father’s home, with her half-brothers, waiting year after year for her mother’s promised return…or at the very least, a phone call. Even as Tru grows into a young woman herself, struggling with discovering her own self and figuring out how to make the world accept the kind of girl she is, she still holds on to a hope that her mother will finally reconnect.
This is such a sweeping, non-traditional, story about mothers and daughters and the costs and expectations of those relationships. I say non-traditional because one thing that I loved is that it wasn’t the rose-colored glasses version of motherhood, but it also wasn’t version that one could dismiss as completely dysfunctional and harmful either. I really appreciated the nuance with which Dennis-Benn wrote these relationships. The loss of protection and trust between Patsy and her own mother, and the consequences there, cast a shadow over everything that followed in Patsy’s life. And the way that spilled over into her own motherhood of Tru was both heartbreaking (for them both) and could have been easy to judge harshly, if Dennis-Benn was any less adept a writer. However, the way she built Patsy’s past, her background and her own mother’s expectations and the way that Tru was conceived in the first place…it all served to allow a softer interpretation on Patsy’s actions and choices. Plus, I deeply appreciate the focus on the fact that becoming a mother does not, should not, supersede the mother as a person, in her own right, with her own hopes and dreams. And while Patsy didn’t always handle that perfectly, who among us hasn’t dealt with a relationship/situation in a way that we regret and don’t know how to fix? Anyways, that was a perspective I don’t see often and I was feeling it. Also, as a side mother-daughter relationship, that of Tru and her father’s wife, Marva, was also really interesting to read. It really serves to highlight some of the contemporary expectations of mothers for girls vs the individual desires/identities of those girls…and what that can do to them both. Plus, in this case, it’s all even more heightening by Patsy’s parting “advice” to Tru and subsequent (basically) abandonment. Honestly, I really felt for Tru throughout the novel. And though I think perhaps her story wraps up slightly too neatly (and quickly, considering how long the rest of the novel and character/plot development is), I cannot honestly say that I didn’t want that kind of ending for her.
As far as the immigration aspect of the plot, I really got shades of Americanah, as far as the lushness of the writing, the intricacies of the characterization and circumstance development, and, at a very basic level, the contrasting way that two very different experiences of immigration played out (Cicely vs Patsy). However, that’s where the comparisons end, at least for me. I mention it only to say that I think, if you liked Americanah, you should definitely pick up Patsy. Anyways, it provides piercing and unforgiving insight into life in America without “papers,” and the minimal options available to anyone in that situation, despite the promised land it is held up as for those wanting to immigrate. It’s not a new message, but it remains an important one. Relatedly, by focusing on both Patsy and Tru (and in multiple other small ways throughout the novel), the author is able to highlight the disconnect between the reality of immigration and the “picture of success” that is relayed back to those at home, as well as ideas about which world, the new or the old, is “better.” This particular distance between reality and what we tell/show people struck me hard and was one of the most affecting pieces of the book for me. One other point here, the added aspects about the costs of neighborhood gentrification on these “hidden” populations seemed unique to me, not something I have heard/read much about before.
Woven in along with all of these themes is an exploration of Patsy’s own internal struggle with her feelings and motivations, related to sexuality, and the way others perceive/react to it (or, in some cases, how she feels others perceive/react to it). There is just so much depth to these characters and their lives and the things they’re dealing with. And this particular additional facet is one that, as we reach the end, creates a wonderfully poignant “moment to come” for Patsy and Tru, though it doesn’t actually happen in the book itself, it’s a vision of the future the author lays the groundwork for, so that as a reader, we can appreciate what it will mean to them both when it happens. And that, potentially more than anything else, is a testament to how well-written this entire novel is – that we can have an emotional reaction to an interaction between characters that doesn’t even fully happen within the context of the novel itself. But yea, back to my main point, a subtle addition to the overall plot is both Patsy and Tru’s sexualities and/or gender identities. It’s an added consideration in most major interactions and decisions, but never takes a center stage role. It just is. As it should be (because that’s how it is in real life). Which is a lovely, realistic, variation on LGBTQ characters in literature.
Basically, there isn’t much I didn’t appreciate or respect in this novel. To be honest, other than a bit of a slow start (in regards to my personal full-on investment in the story) and an ending that felt just slightly rushed, this was a gorgeous novel. All of the most important things, from plot to characters to dialogue (verbal and otherwise), were written to perfection. And in fact, the rhythm and expansiveness of the writing itself is perhaps the jewel of this novel. Spanning years, from the streets of New York to the streets of Jamaica, this was a vibrant and deeply connecting novel about characters whose circumstances and worlds have set them up to have to fight tooth and nail for every inch they gain. Compelling and real and inspiring in a bleak-ish way.
These quotes may not be exact, as I listened to the audiobook, but they were impactful enough that I really wanted to add them anyways. Any mistakes of wording or punctuation are my bad.
“There’s a difference between wanting to die and not wanting to live.”
“How is it fate if you have control over it?”
“Life’s scars make us warriors.”