NPR Review: 'Patsy,' By Nicole Dennis-BennNicole Dennis-Benn packs a lot of uncomfortable truths into this novel about a Jamaican woman who emigrates to New York looking for an old love and a new life, leaving her mother and daughter behind.
Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, stunned critics when it was released in 2016. The story of a woman and her two daughters fighting for survival in their drought-stricken Jamaican town, it was a powerful look at issues like poverty, colorism and homophobia.
Admirers of Here Comes the Sun have waited three years for Dennis-Benn's followup, and anyone who was enchanted by her gorgeous writing are in for a happy surprise: Patsy isn't just as good as its predecessor, it's somehow even better.
The title character of the novel is a young single mother in Jamaica, living with her devoutly Christian mother, Mama G, and her young daughter, Tru. She works a minimum-wage civil service job to support her family; it's barely enough to cover her family's rent and food and her daughter's private school tuition.
Patsy has a dream: "a dream every Jamaican of a certain social ranking shares: boarding an airplane to America." She's determined to get a travel visa to visit Cicely, her longtime friend and former lover, who moved to New York years before. She envisions herself and Cicely living what she sees as a normal American life, "trying on clothes in boutiques and zipping up each other's dresses like they did as girls, and shopping for household items together, like real couples do for their house — a two-story brick house."
She's ecstatic when she's able to obtain a visa to join Cicely in New York — she has no intention of returning to Jamaica, but promises her heartbroken daughter that the two will be reunited soon. Patsy is filled with hope for her new life in America, but her dreams are quickly dashed — the Cicely she knew as a younger woman is essentially gone; in her place is a social striver married to an abusive man: "She is moved to cry at the sheer insanity, the inner chaos of tangled emotions, which pressed her blind across the ocean to be with a woman who doesn't feel the same way about her."
After being kicked out of Cicely's house by her husband, Patsy is forced to find work as a bathroom attendant in a Jamaican restaurant owned by a French-Canadian man with as much knowledge of her homeland's culture as a white high school junior who's just discovered the music of Bob Marley. She eventually finds work as a nanny, despite the fact that she's ceased contact with her own child: "With much force, she severed all communication with her daughter, thinking it easier this way for both of them to move on. The absence of a mother is more dignified than the presence of a distant one."
Meanwhile, in Jamaica, Tru is confronting her own disappointments. She lives with her biological father and his family, hoping to hear anything from the mother who promised her that they'd be together again soon. Tru is also coming to terms with her own gender and sexuality — observing a group of boys playing soccer, Dennis-Benn writes, "She wants to play with them. But more than that, the quiet desire that rises up above all desires in the soundlessness — she wants to be them."
Dennis-Benn packs a great deal of emotional power into Patsy, and does so successfully because she's not afraid to confront truths that many other authors might shy away from. There are plenty of novels that celebrate the mother-daughter bond, but not as many that delve into its absence. "Truth be told, she never loved her daughter like she's supposed to, or like her daughter loves her," she writes. A protagonist who's abandoned her child isn't naturally sympathetic, but Dennis-Benn portrays Patsy beautifully, with real compassion and no judgment.
She also looks unflinchingly at the experience of undocumented immigrants in America, who are forced to deal with racism and poverty in the land they've always dreamed about. One of Patsy's fellow immigrants, who plans to marry a U.S. citizen in order to get a green card, mocks Patsy's reluctance to do the same. "Love? We can't afford to love in dis country," the woman says. "We not at dat place yet as immigrants where we can choose love. Like everyt'ing else, we tek what we can get — grab on to any lifeboat so we don't drown in dis place call America."
Much like Here Comes the Sun, Patsy benefits from Dennis-Benn's gorgeous writing — she has a strong narrative voice and a real gift for dialogue. Explaining her decision to abandon Tru, Patsy tells a friend, ""My mother always told me ah child is a gift from God. But I neva could bring me self to ask har what if I neva wanted it. What about what I want?"
Dennis-Benn isn't just a compassionate writer, she's also a courageous one, unafraid to address topics that too often go ignored. And in Patsy and Tru, she's managed to create two unforgettable characters who function as real people and not literary archetypes. Dennis-Benn is quickly becoming an indispensable novelist, and Patsy is a brave, brilliant triumph of a book.