Heliopolis, by James Scudamore
In selecting quotes for this review I noticed an interesting thing. I noticed that I’d only picked descriptive passages. It’s not that James Scudamore can’t write good dialogue, he does, but he writes great descriptions.
Isn’t that just the most tremendous cover? It also perfectly fits the book. Vintage often have good covers, but they outdid themselves here. Anyway, back to the book.
Heliopolis tells the story of Ludo, plucked from the slums of Sao Paolo as a baby and adopted into one of the city’s richest families. His adoptive father is Zé Carnicelli, known to all as Zé Generoso. Zé’s English wife (“Whenever she was in the room it was as if an angel had descended, to look willowy and concerned, and empathise, professionally.”) discovered Ludo and his mother in the Heliopolis favela (slum) while engaged in one of her many, many, charitable activities. Ludo’s mother shared some beans and rice, all the food that was available. A connection was formed, which led to Ludo’s mother being taken on as cook in Zé’s weekend country retreat, to Ludo escaping the world he was born into and years later to Ludo becoming part of the family his mother cooked for.
That’s a big debt of gratitude, and that’s Ludo’s problem in a nutshell. He grew up a servant’s child but closer to the family than any other servant, because of the miracle of their intervention and his rescue from absolute poverty. Now aged 27 he works for an advertising company owned by one of Zé’s friends, he has an apartment in Sao Paolo and a life that couldn’t be much further from Heliopolis if he lived it on Mars. His whole life is defined by an act of charity. He belongs nowhere: too rich to fit in with the poor he’s left behind, but without the unquestioned certainties of those born to the helicopter-driven classes.
Fitting in isn’t Ludo’s only problem. There’s also the fact that he’s sleeping with his married adoptive sister, does nothing at work except turn up late and hung over, and has recently started receiving mysterious phone messages from a stalker who wants to destroy his life. Ludo’s contradictory worlds are all about to crash into each other.
Heliopolis then is a novel with a story, and (allowing for one fairly massive coincidence around the middle of the book) it’s a solidly constructed story which zips along and has enough twists and turns that the book became a positive pageturner. The chapters alternate, between what’s happening to Ludo now and hs memories of his childhood on the Carnicelli’s weekend retreat, and for me at least both narrative strands were equally interesting which also helped pull me through the book – curious to see where it was going next.
Where Heliopolis shines best though is not its story, entertaining as that is. It’s in the descriptions, from shantytowns to exclusive gated communities with private guards. Here’s an example:
Town planning never happened: there wasn’t time. The city ambushed its inhabitants, exploding in consecutive booms of coffee, sugar and rubber, so quickly that nobody could draw breath to say what should go where. It has been expanding ever since, sustained by all that ferocious energy. And here, just as in the universe, anything could happen.
And here’s another, from later on the same page:
… turn a corner and you might find lush foliage, pristine pavements, smoked-glass security gatehouses, and deep, glinting swimming pools. For every wrecked no-go area there is an optimistic new condominium, for every rotting ruin a daring new spire. The city is being reclaimed all the time, either by the forces of development or those of deterioration: the only constant is its power to change. Mobility is celebrated to the point that whole highways are named in honour of Workers and Immigrants. That is why for every desparate hopeful arriving today from the northeast, and every Japanese, Italian, or Lebanese who pitched up in previous years, the city is a stronghold to be stormed; a glaring citadel of opportunity, with swarms coming from all sides to hurl themselves at its ramparts, prepared to end up dead on the wals if they fail. But they must not fail.
Brazil, Sao Paolo, pulses with life in this novel. Scudamore has a journalist’s eye and a neat turn of phrase and the two combine to make his vision of the city both evocative and persuasive. Whether it’s also accurate I have no idea (I’ve been to Rio, but not Sao Paolo), but it feels accurate and given it’s a novel and not reportage that’s good enough for me.
Scudamore is also excellent at swift portraits of the Paulistanas themselves. Here he is on the guests at Zé’s weekend retreat:
Guests would arrive in armoured 4x4s or mud-spattered jeeps: tanned men with bellies and moustaches, who chatted by the pool all weekend gripping beers and caipirinhas; stunning wives on sunloungers with tinted hair and manicured nails and cosmetically enhanced bodies, rotating in the heat like rotisserie chickens.
That last image there, of the wives rotating like roasting chickens, brings me to the book’s other great love beyond the city itself. Food. Each chapter of Heliopolis is named after a dish which features in that chapter (Feijoada, Jacaranda Honey, Sea Urchin) reflecting the centrality of food to Ludo’s own salvation. His mother’s cooking brought him from the gutter. As a child she showed her love in the treats she gave him while she cooked for the Carnicelli’s. As an adult he is a talented home cook himself with a love of fine restaurants. I said already that Scudamore has a talent for description. This is not a book to read when hungry.
Then there were the accompaniments: heaps of finely shredded green kale fried in garlic and oil, roasted cassava flour, pork rinds, plantains, rice, glistening slices of orange. And endless ice-cold jugs of passionfruit, cajú, or lime batida to help it all on its way.
So, any reservations? On one level not particularly. The plot rattles along and comes to a neat and satisfying conclusion. Everything hangs together. I found it a fun read and will likely buy more of Scudamore’s books in future. That’s not a bad result. On another level though this is a novel which was longlisted for the 2009 Booker and which comes festooned with critical praise from the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman, Literary Review, the Financial Times, the Glasgow Herald (and the Daily Mail, but that’s not Scudamore’s fault). There are quotes on the rear and inside front covers from all these highly regarded newspapers and magazines using phrases like “brilliantly inventive”, “beautifully clear prose”, talking of “writing [which] is exemplary” and throwing around words like “superb”, “extraordinary” and “triumph” (full marks to the FT though for the phrase “A kinetic novel” which is absolutely spot on).
That’s a lot of praise, and it leaves me in the odd position of knocking down a novel which I really enjoyed. It is good, it is fun, it’s a very easy read, but the story doesn’t do anything hugely surprising, it doesn’t contain any great insights (unless you were unaware of Brazil’s huge wealth disparities) and it doesn’t do anything with form or structure. It’s well written, but it’s not a prose driven novel. It’s not seeking to push literature forward. It’s seeking to be a well written and tightly plotted book which says something about contemporary Brazil, and it succeeds at precisely that. It just doesn’t succeed at more than that.
I now feel rather like I’ve punched a baby, because this isn’t remotely a bad book and it doesn’t deserve to be criticised for not being what it doesn’t ever set out to be (what book does?). The problem with hyperbole though is it leaves nowhere for an author to go. Scudamore has talent, but his characters aren’t as interesting as his locations and there’s a sense near the end of the plot taking over when for me it was the least exciting part of the book (it’s the engine that keeps the book moving, sure, but engine’s aren’t always at their best when they’re showing). Put simply, I think Scudamore has the potential in him for better books than this one.
Kevin of kevinfromcanada first put Heliopolis on my radar with his review here (and draws an excellent parallel with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which I wish I’d thought of). Guy Savage also reviewed it here. It hardly needs saying that both of course are well worth reading and they picked different quotes to me (though the one they have in common was on my list for consideration). Their quotes were descriptive passages too.