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In 'Patsy,' Dennis-Benn tackles sexuality, immigration and motherhood

Kirkus Reviews
"Patsy" by Nicole Dennis-Benn

In Nicole Dennis-Benn's "Patsy," a woman comes to terms with how her immigration to America affects her family back home in Jamaica — and herself.

For the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Dennis-Benn returns briefly to Jamaica before shifting her locale to Brooklyn. It’s 1998, and single mother Patsy isn't able to get a tourist visa at the American Embassy in Kingston until she agrees to leave Trudy-Ann, her 5-year-old daughter, behind. Patsy’s American dreams are not just about a better financial future for Tru; she has long hoped to reunite with the love of her life, her childhood girlfriend, Cicely, now living in Brooklyn. But her dreams are stymied by the difficult reality of finding work in New York — despite Patsy’s best efforts, the only employment she can find is as a bathroom attendant, cleaning toilets — and by Cicely’s marriage to an abusive, overbearing man. Cicely, now a woman “smelling of expensive flowers and looking resplendent in a long purple peacoat cinched at the waist with a belt, a colorful silk scarf wrapped around her neck, still holding on to her Chanel handbag,” would rather stay with her husband than lose the lifestyle his wealth provides her. Tru, meanwhile, is sent to live with the father she doesn’t know. Alternating between Patsy's and Tru's stories, Dennis-Benn allows each character’s experience an equal depth and presence in the book. Slowly Patsy comes into her own, finding work as a nanny, but as Tru comes of age back in Jamaica missing her mother, Patsy, looking after another woman’s child, is haunted by the absence of her own daughter and the choices she must continue to make to survive in America, alone. Although she's lovingly drawn by Dennis-Benn, Patsy has done the single most-damning thing a mother can do in our society: She has abandoned her child. It's a marker of Dennis-Benn’s masterful prowess at characterization and her elegant, nuanced writing that the people here — even when they're flawed or unlikable — inspire sympathy and respect.

Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race and immigration that speaks to the contemporary moment through the figure of a woman alive with passion and regret.

(Dennis-Benn will speak and sign her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. Information: bookpeople.com.)

Whimsy or angst?

A dead-letter detective rethinks his life when he reads a series of letters addressed to "My Great Love" in Helen Cullen’s debut, "The Lost Letters of William Woolf."

William Woolf is one of a small handful of postal workers who attend to dead letters, letters that for whatever reason have gotten lost in the system. His particular penchant is for the "supernaturals," letters addressed to mythical, fictional, or otherworldly recipients. When he finds a letter addressed to "My Great Love" in his pile one day, he slowly begins a journey of rediscovery in his own life. The letter writer is addressing her future love whom she’s not yet met, and in her, William sees both the vitality of young love and the difference between this vibrancy and the state of his own marriage. His relationship with Clare, his wife of 14 years, has been getting rockier and rockier, and this echo of what they once had brings it to the forefront. Should he find the mysterious letter writer? Should he try to reconnect with his wife? The novel is exceedingly well-written and flows incredibly well. Despite the quirkiness implied by the setting of the dead-letter office, the story is focused much more on William and Clare’s marital problems than anything that’s happening at William’s job. There are chapters told from both William's and Clare’s points of view, although more frequently William's. Though Cullen attempts to show that both spouses are somewhat at fault for their situation, Clare is a less sympathetic character; she seems unaware for most of the book of the unrealistic standards she is imposing on her husband. A scene of William reuniting an important package with its recipient is quite moving, and the lack of more scenes showing the pathos of William’s work is unfortunate.

Cullen's debut is an eccentric novel with less whimsy than angst.

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