A Lifestyle Blog by Mwahaki King


Monday 5 August 2019

A Masterclass in Sacrifice & Self-Discovery: Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Second Novel Shines

Nationally celebrated novelist, Nicole Dennis-Benn is back with a gripping new novel! This time it is the tumultuous tale of Patsy (PATSY, Liveright Hardcover $26.95, 432pp, ISBN: 978-1-63149-563-2); a Jamaican woman who has finally received her long-held dream of a visa to America. She intends to use this visa as an opportunity to escape the poverty that surrounds her in a Kingston ghetto and reunite with her oldest friend-turned-lover Cicely; who left the island years before under a shroud of mystery. However, this escape plan does not include Patsy’s five year old daughter, Tru. 

“She squeezes her daughter in a tight embrace, wishing she could be satisfied with the simple pleasure of feeling the sun on her eyelids and the embrace of her daughter. But as she inhales the smell of Blue Magic hair oil she uses in Tru’s hair, which mingles with the smell of beef patties and exhaust fumes from the traffic, and as she listens to the sounds of rush hour on Half-Way Tree Road clamoring around them, Patsy only feels her secret yearning for more deepening. (pp.32-33)

Over ten years we see Patsy grapple with the harsh realities of being an undocumented immigrant in New York City, and the shattered illusion of being with Cicely. Since leaving Jamaica, Cicely married a man to secure her American citizenship who is physically abusive and she is terrified of leaving him. Meanwhile back in Kingston, Tru struggles with her sexuality, as well as self-harm and depression rooted in being abandoned by her mother at a young age.

As with her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, in Patsy, Dennis-Benn continues to paint a vivid, raw and honest portrait of the beautiful and the brutal aspects of Jamaican life. We are given a window into the world of Patsy and Tru - a mother and daughter separated by an ever-growing chasm of time and distance. 

“Because of the sun’s rays…Patsy blinks. It’s hard to see her daughter’s face behind the sheer golden curtain. She thinks to herself, a good mother would have snapped a photograph of a baby girl not quite six with a mouth fixed like her father’s and eyes that seem to contain many moons that threaten to eclipse the sun. A good mother would have taken the time to use the very last second to inhale her daughter’s scent of Blue Magic hair oil mixed with baby powder. But she’s late to catch her flight. The farther Patsy gets, the more Tru fades. Until the little girl completely vanishes in the sunlight. (p.63)

Dennis-Benn exquisitely utilizes the evolution of the central characters over a decade to demonstrate the perilous existence undocumented immigrants face in America, the rigid socio-economic stratification present in Jamaica, and the complicated relationship with lighter skin tones that still pervades post-colonial Caribbean communities. Additionally, Dennis-Benn expands on the excellent precedent she set in Here Comes the Sun by unabashedly tackling LGBTQ issues and presenting relationships that are full of love, complexity and nuance. Her work is a bold and profoundly brave contribution to Caribbean literature that must be applauded. 

At the core of Patsy is the concept of love. One comes away from this novel realizing that the choices we make for love can break us, haunt us and irrevocably impact not only the people we love, but the people we become.

“It took almost a year for this to happen, for Tru to begin to forgive her mother. She’s not sure if she’s fully there yet, or if she’ll ever get to that place of complete forgiveness. In her quiet times, there is still an unexplainable ache she feels, which throbs like the nerve of a phantom limb.” (p.418)

Sacrifice is another prevailing theme throughout Patsy. While readers may focus on the titular character’s glaring sacrifice to abandon her young daughter for the opportunities she imagined life in America would provide; the sacrifices Patsy’s childhood friend Cicely makes for the wealth and prestige she achieves in America must not be ignored. Cicely will resonate as a tragic and sadly familiar character to many women trapped in dangerous and abusive relationships due to financial limitations and isolation.

“Before she [Cicely] can finish her sentence, she’s searching her mouth for broken teeth…she doesn’t bother to get back up. She knows better. She has lost all fight in her. She knows that her husband is right. She knows that if she wakes up the next morning and he’s not there then she would have nowhere to go.” (pp. 133-134)

By tenderly and expertly looking at the sacrifices of womanhood in general and motherhood specifically, as well as the complexities of class and color, immigration and identity; Dennis-Benn has produced a heartbreaking, but ultimately resilient novel. Patsy is a precise and achingly beautiful piece of work; a truly necessary read.

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