Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn is my second read for this month’s #CaribAThon read-along, and for June’s celebration of Caribbean Heritage Month. Once again, I am grateful to YouTube book bloggers Comfycozyup and Runwright Reads for showcasing works by Caribbean authors from 13 independent islands.
As I said in my previous CaribAThon post where I reviewed Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, I am so pleased to be reading these brilliant new-to-me authors. By coincidence, both Patsy and Annie John centre around a mother-daughter relationship.
From the blurb about Patsy:
When Patsy gets her long-coveted visa to America, it comes after years of yearning to leave Pennyfield, the beautiful but impoverished Jamaican town where she was raised. More than anything, Patsy wishes to be reunited with her oldest friend, Cicely, whose letters arrive from New York steeped in the promise of a happier life and the possible rekindling of their young love. But Patsy’s plans don’t include her overzealous, evangelical mother―or even her five-year-old daughter, Tru.
Beating with the pulse of a long-witheld confession, Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to choose herself first―not to give a better life to her family back home. Patsy leaves Tru behind in a defiant act of self-preservation, hoping for a new start where she can be, and love, whomever she wants. But when Patsy arrives in Brooklyn, America is not as Cicely’s treasured letters described; to survive as an undocumented immigrant, she is forced to work as a bathroom attendant and nanny. Meanwhile, Tru builds a faltering relationship with her father back in Jamaica, grappling with her own questions of identity and sexuality, and trying desperately to empathize with her mother’s decision.
I found this to be a powerful and compelling read. It balances a sense of epic saga with a close, tightly written narrative style. The reader is given a vivid panorama of life in Jamaica and New York through the lenses of Patsy and Tru. It is painful to share the ups and downs of their lives and yet the reader cannot look away. You always want to know what happens next and how things will turn out for them.
I felt that the parallel narratives of Patsy and Tru were brilliantly crafted. Their respective lives are so different, and yet in many ways the same. They both experience pain, loneliness, discrimination, poverty and exclusion. They both want, need and get different kinds of love. Watching how they each deal with their own circumstances is fascinating. I was unexpectedly reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Convergence of the Twain which explores the building of The Titanic as the iceberg develops:
“And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.”
In Patsy, the reader has the sense of Patsy and Tru as two potent forces developing independently, yet with an inexorable sense that they will, at some point, and in some way, come together. The question for the reader of course is whether this will indeed be the outcome and, if so, when and how.
Another key theme of the book is inner and outer conflict. Right from the start of the novel, we know that Patsy is struggling with herself, her life and her role as a mother:
“What can a young woman on the brink of defeat say to the questioning face of her five-year-old daughter? Where is the honor in her daughter knowing she owns nothing? Not her dreams. Not her life. Not herself. What can she give her? What could her repression of desires, which she has resisted for so long, achieve other than resentment that could potentially destroy Tru?”
The repercussions of Patsy’s choices as she searches for answers to these questions weave through the whole story.
We also get a glimpse of cultural conflict as we witness some of the challenges faced by Jamaicans both at home and abroad. The realities of life for Black people are clear. But the novel’s tone is never a pity-party. Here is Tru’s father giving her some tough love:
“Dey got a black man running fah president now, too. Don’t mean it g’wan be easier fah black people if him win. In dis life, what you see is what yuh get,” Roy says. “Yuh see dat?” He points to where the sun rises like a newly cracked egg yolk. “Dat’s a certainty. As long as you’re alive, yuh know yuh can depend on seeing it every day. Yuh can’t place hopes on no one else, because everyone g’wan disappoint you. It’s life. Get dat right, or else yuh g’wan end up mad an’ angry fah di rest of yuh life. Yuh not g’wan have everyt’ing handed to you like dat. Yuh neva g’wan have a mansion or a nice car or a servant serving yuh ice-cold lemonade if yuh jus’ sit there expecting people to feel sorry fah you. No one will ever be sorry. No one owe you anyt’ing. Not even happiness. Nope. Neva. Yuh g’wan have to harden yuhself. Toughen up like coconut to survive in dis world. You’s not no delicate woman. So neva mek me see yuh cry like one, expecting people to do fah you. Compared to some children, you have a family. Me an’ Marva are yuh family. A family dat can provide an’ send you to a good school. Dat’s sweet. Real sweet. But yuh know what you’ll always have no mattah how tough or educated you be? A broken heart. Welcome aboard.”
Overall, this is a book that makes you think, and helps you to learn about other lives, while at the same time being a highly enjoyable read. It is beautifully written; the characters have depth and are believable; and there is a tangible sense of time and place. Pretty perfect really! 🙂