In preparation for Iceland Writers Retreat, I am reading at least one book by each of the featured authors before I go. Although it’s a bit weird to review a book by someone who is about to become your teacher, I read best when I know I have to report on it later, so here we are. While I was reading Iain Reid’s The Truth About Luck, I took the girls to the Central Library for a children’s film festival. Afterwards, I browsed fiction, keeping an eye on my oldest daughter as she moved among the homeless in the manga section nearby. I found Heliopolis by James Scudamore first.
I started it reading it during my bus commute that week, and was instantly sucked down a rabbit hole that landed in Brazil. When I reached my stop, I was surprised to discover that my headphones were still blasting heavy metal into my ears; I was so absorbed in the book I didn’t hear the music at all.
I defend genre novels at every opportunity, because many of the stories that I love best come from dubious provenance. A lot of the classics (see Sir Walter Scott) are really romances legitimized through long use and love. But every now and then, I read something that reminds me what Literature can be.
So far I’ve gushed high praise without any substantiation, and I admit that some of my enthusiasm may come from being blindsided by how much I enjoyed a book whose jacket copy didn’t appeal to me at all. But Scudamore tells two stories so compellingly – the story of Ludo, who was adopted by the wealthy family that his mother cooked for, and the story of Sao Paulo with its obscene divide between rich and poor (which is nearly the same thing as black and white) – that I gave up a couple of nights of writing to finish reading the book.
The events of the story take place during a period of personal crisis, broken up by a series of flashbacks that eventually reveal the Ludo’s entire life story. Ludo represents all of the dichotomies of his setting: rich/poor, black/white, master/servant, urban/rural, real/fake. Heliopolis is filled with nested episodes and vignettes in which the environment/flashback/current action narratives parallel and mirror each other. But it isn’t a set of identical matryoshka dolls. Rather, it’s like a bento box, holding a collection of asymmetrical yet complementary compartments that provide a balance of flavors, colors, and textures.
As I always do when reading stories that feature neither dragons nor elves, I spent a lot of energy wondering how much of the story is true, and how much imagined. Is helicopter commuting a metaphor for the insularity of the extremely rich, or a true-life example of it? Are race relations in Brazil, like North America, so starkly black and white, or did Scudamore choose to ignore a more complicated reality for literary reasons? To me, a measure of realistic fiction is whether it drives me to nonfiction to find the answers to questions of that sort. I think that when I’m finished with my Iceland Writers Retreat pre-curriculum, Brazil will be on my radar in a way that it never was before.
Wisely, Scudamore doesn’t attempt to provide any kind of resolution to the grand chaotic narrative of Sao Paulo. But he does provide satisfying closure for Ludo. In a way, Heliopolis is a coming of age story. At the time of the story, the favela where Ludo was born has evolved into a legitimate neighborhood. Ludo, although in his late 20s and well-placed in his career, is struggling with the typical questions of adolescence – ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I stand for?’
Two Keyser Soze moments, revealing the identities of his harassing caller and his father, help to resolve Ludo’s identity crisis. The reader knows that this resolution of his inner struggle will blow the lid off the tidy lunchbox of his external situation, but in the context of Sao Paulo’s natural history, we also know the cycle of growth and decay is endless. To wish for tidy answers and final endings is to wish for fantasy instead of the salty umami of life.