Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Published: 4th June 2019
Genre: Literary Fiction (Immigrant Experience/LGBTQ)
Setting: Jamaica | Brooklyn, New York
Rating: 5 Stars
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-withheld 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.
Expertly evoking the jittery streets of New York and the languid rhythms of Jamaica, Patsy weaves between the lives of Patsy and Tru in vignettes spanning more than a decade as mother and daughter ultimately find a way back to one another. (Source: Goodreads)
I thought I had read all there is to an Immigrant Experience story, in fact, I was getting a tad bit tired of reading about the illusionary and elusive ‘American Dream’ for undocumented African and Caribbean Immigrants in the US. That is, until I picked up – PATSY and experienced it in a way that I haven’t before.
When 28 year old Patsy finally gets her American tourist visa, she is more than happy to abandon everything in her impoverished hometown of Pennyfield, Jamaica for a life of freedom and great opportunity in the land of the rich and free. She has no qualms about leaving behind her low paying government job, her lovers – former and current, her country, her mother and most importantly, her 5 year old daughter – Tru. Patsy is fueled by a strong desire to reconnect with her childhood lover Cicely who had moved to America years earlier. Her dream of living her most authentic life, free to be herself and love whoever she wants, outweighs all else, including her love for her daughter, whom she has never truly been able to love the way mothers are supposed to love their children. And so she leaves, knowing she would never come back.
Tru, now left in the care of her previously absentee father and wife, struggles to make sense of her mother’s absence. She did after all promise that if Tru behaved and was obedient, she would come back. So why isn’t she back? Was Tru not as obedient as she had been told? Does her mother think of her? And why doesn’t she ever call or write letters or send barrels as the parents of her classmates living in the US and the UK do? As Tru approaches adolescence, her confliction is compounded by her emerging sexuality and just like her mother before her, she struggles to find space to live her truth in her homophobic town.
The story intricately weaves in between the lives of Patsy and Tru, spanning a decade, pulling mother and daughter apart in unimaginable ways and allowing them after years of separation to come to a place of rebuilding.
I won’t lie. I judged Patsy, and quite harshly at first. I didn’t want to understand nor was I interested in empathizing with her decision to choose herself over her child. Aren’t mothers supposed to unequivocally love their children? But Dennis-Benn is a master story teller and she forces you to grapple with Patsy’s impossible decision. She implores you (the reader) to evaluate your judgment and condemnation of Patsy in light of the multitude of push and pull factors that inform her choices and in it, find empathy. Patsy made me re-evaluate my own notions of motherhood - does motherhood trump individuality? Can you learn how be a mother if you’ve never experienced/learnt/ observed your own mother be a mother to you? Can you learn how to love a child if you’ve never learnt how to love yourself? Is it selfish to choose yourself over your child? And what if you never wanted the child in the first place?
My heart bled for Tru. Life couldn’t have been more unfair to this child who trusted & loved her mother so dearly and so purely, as children always do before we teach them that love is not always enough and that promises are made to be broken. I wanted to reach out and hug her, be the mother she so longed for and guide her through her journey of self-discovery. I was heavily invested in her.
All the characters in this book are wholesome, believable, flawed and real and the story is told in such an engaging way, fast paced but not too fast that you feel lost, I could have easily read another 100 pages. I would flaw Nicole for tying up the ending too neatly but even that feels like a non-issue for this outstanding book. Nicole Dennis-Benn has me blown away. The last time I felt so conflicted, deeply involved and overwhelmed by a story and the authenticity of the characters is when I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
Please read this book. Read it and Love it.