Something about the liquid imagery and cryptic title drew me to this novel. London has a big Brazilian community so I was curious to read about that cross-cultural experience as well. The novel centres around Andre, a Brazilian man in his later years who has lived his whole adult life in the UK. But he was raised in a privileged white upper-middle class family in Rio de Janeiro. There his family had a maid or an “empregada” named Rita and her mixed-race daughter Luana who also served the family. Andre hasn’t had contact with Luana for many years, but recently he’s received letters from her and it’s forced him to revisit a past which he’s denied throughout his life. Gradually the story of his tumultuous teenage years is revealed and the reason why he’s so stridently distanced himself from his country of birth and his family. It’s a novel that comes with a gripping twist which creates a complex picture of love.
In its concept this book is somewhat similar to Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending” for the way the story forces a man to radically reconsider the dramatic choices he made in his youth. It also teasingly questions our perception of what’s happening around us in relation to how those events are cemented in our collective idea of history. Andre reflects “Young people don’t know the importance of things when they’re happening, but when those images still play in your mind long after your hair’s gone grey and your belly slack, that’s when you know.” It’s fascinating the way events which seem trivial or circumstantial can inflate into having a greater importance we never could have attributed to them at the time. Andre discovers certain facts about the past and what was lost which make him see his life in a more rounded way and develop an empathy for other people’s perspectives.
Part of what motivated Andre’s emotional decisions in his youth was the sudden death of his mother which we learn about quite early in the novel. It left a teenage Andre and his younger brother to be raised by his workaholic father Matheus so that they lived in an entirely male household. Andre’s sharp memories of his mother are beautifully rendered: “Even now, I can see my mother and hear her loud voice, her heels clicking on the floor. She’s like a pop song, the melody and lyrics imprinted in my mind.” There also existed in their household the female presences of Rita and her daughter Luana, but there’s an awkward tension here as they navigate the intimacies of home life, the formality of the women as servants and the developing sexual attraction between Andre and Luana. The dynamic of these relationships highlight the strident class system in place in Brazil at that time.
Matheus worked as a plastic surgeon and it’s also interesting to see the way the class of people their family socialized with was so obsessed with appearance and beauty. However, Andre’s father also had a clandestine after-hours job delivering abortions. Abortion is a controversial issue and laws concerning it are in the process or being amended – where traditionally abortion has only been legal there if the pregnancy puts the woman’s life in danger or if that pregnancy was the result of rape. However, these issues aren’t explored in the novel and I would have been fascinated to read about them – especially as a counterpart to my recent reading of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “A Book of American Martyrs.” The middle of Sauma’s novel lags somewhat as its concerned more with mundane details about tensions in Luana and Andre’s relationship rather than these more complex social issues. However, I can see why the author chose to focus exclusively on the issue of their affair because otherwise it would have become a very different kind of novel. And when the twist comes in this book I was wholly invested and thoroughly gripped. After this point the revelations unfold thick and fast. It’s a promising debut novel and I hope to read more by Sauma in the future.