Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published February 23rd 2017 by Viking

Brazilian-born doctor André Cabral is living in London when one day he receives a letter from his home country, which he left nearly thirty years ago. A letter he keeps in his pocket for weeks, but tells no one about.

The letter prompts André to remember the days of his youth – torrid afternoons on Ipanema beach with his listless teenage friends, parties in elegant Rio apartments, his after-school job at his father’s plastic surgery practice – and, above all, his secret infatuation with the daughter of his family’s maid, the intoxicating Luana. Unable to resist the pull of the letter, André embarks on a journey back to Brazil to rediscover his past.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water read like a primitive high school essay that could possibly have be entitled: “My Memories of Growing Up and How I Ended Up Here.” Honestly, that title makes it sound a bit more interesting than it was for most of the novel. While there were a few glimmering moments of promise, this horse never truly broke out into a run for me—there were times when it never even left the stable.

While this novel is, at its core, a novel about race in class—the line between the rich and the poor, the light-skinned and the dark-skinned in Brazil—it didn’t come with a lot of depth. The storyline was basic; Andre is the quintessential rich boy who’s bored of the parties around him and is surprised that his maid has a life of her own outside of washing his clothes and cooking his meals. He’s the kind of teenager who’s spoiled and curious and sheltered, the kind who plans to raise his children the same way he was raised: by a black woman who sleeps in a small room behind the kitchen. In short, he was pretty annoying and flat for pretty much all of the novel. (view spoiler)

The dialogue was so basic and one-dimensional that it was practically elementary and definitely added nothing whatsoever to the plot, tension or emotion of the novel as a whole. In fact, I found myself thinking more times than is even acceptable, “Is this a novel in translation?” because at least that would explain the lack of…anything present here. Perhaps it was, quite literally, just lost in translation. (Because I can find no evidence to the contrary, I’ve come to believe that this is not, actually, a translation.) Flesh and Bone and Water instead was delivered like a pretty lackluster, definitely watered-down version of a Hanif Kureishi novel, and I was ready to put it down before I got one-fifth of the way through it. Really, nothing truly happened in this novel until over halfway through it. The storyline from there could have been truly heartwarming if handled differently. Instead, it read as rushed at times and stale pretty much throughout, aside from a few more-polished moments.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water was tangible proof that a great idea does not a great novel make. It takes more than that; it takes finesse and heart and skill, which this novel didn’t display an extraordinary level of dexterity with. If you’re looking for a simple novel—the kind to make you say aaawwww when two teenagers kiss behind hanging laundry, then this may very well be a novel of interest for you. However, if you’re a reader who is looking to sink their teeth into something—to follow and love and root for your characters with the same passion for them that they exude as characters on the pages—then I bid you think twice about this one. It’s about as bare bones (no pun intended) as a burlap sack. 2 stars **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Viking, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in London. She has an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Award in 2014, and she has also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Flesh and Bone and Water is her first novel.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell

Paperback, 480 pages
Published January 6th 2009 by Berkley (first published 1994)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters, originally published by Putnam in 1994* in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, is a true testament to what I wish we could see more of on bestseller lists today. Published during an era of growing racial tensions (though what era doesn’t have that?) and political outspokenness through hip-hop music, this novel brought to life the realities of being an educated and successful modern-day African American woman. Stereotypes were debunked and explored, and here Campbell helped to set new standards in literature for femininity and “blackness,” while also probing such sensitive topics as the church, the pros and troubles of racial solidarity and reaching across the racial line to find friendship. The characters that the late Campbell portrayed here were realistic and 3-dimensional; the tension that she painted in the air was palpable with the turn of every page, like a heartbeat pulsing throughout the chapters.

Brothers and Sisters was a read that featured relatable dialogue that easily flowed off the tip of the tongue; Campbell’s use of vernacular outside of the workplace and in the “mean streets” of LA beautifully contrasted with dialogue that went on within the walls of the workplace to create a masterful portrayal of what it is like to live in two worlds at the same time, from dealing with stress from the professional expectations of peers in a racist and sexist environment to simultaneously surviving in a world equally hostile outside of the workplace doors. Deceit, mistrust, racism, sexism, accusations of rape, love, dating, social and corporate ladders, competition and banding together to survive in hostile waters all play a role in this novel.

The trouble that many novels have in this genre is that they do not come off as authentic. The dialogue is stilted or unfittingly formal in areas where authenticity is needed or ragged in situations where a sophisticated touch is being attempted by the author. There is a finesse to portraying this double consciousness (for those W.E.B. DuBois followers), this world of African Americanism that is honestly a world within itself, and it is difficult to find an author who depicts this lifestyle—this social setting—accurately and with the tautness and stress that it carries with in real, everyday life. The beauty in which Campbell offered that to her readers here is to be applauded. Following Esther Jackson through a day in her world will bring you out the other side more conscious of societal pressures at play if you weren’t already, deeply entertained and honestly tickled by the thoughts that these characters think but don’t always say. This one is a read for anyone, because there’s something for everyone here if your mind is open.

Make no mistake: I love a good thriller, a thought-provoking character piece or the occasional humor-filled antics of chick lit with a verve and vigor that you can see in this blog, but it’s novels like this that I wish we could see more of in the spotlight today.  5 stars *****

 

*The cover used here is from the 2009 reprint publication of this novel by Berkley.