Published by Faber Books, 2020, 416 pages.
Domestic abuse, homophobia, family secrets…and love. Ingrid Persaud packs it all into this novel set in Trinidad.
Betty was married to Sunil, an abusive man, who didn’t stop at hurting his wife but also hit his young son. “That man gave you love you could feel. He cuff you down? Honeymoon. He give you a black eye? True love in your tail. He break your hand? A love letter.” Then Sunil dies, falling down the stairs. Betty is now on her own with her son, Solo.
She takes in a lodger, Mr. Chetan. The three of them form an unconventional family. Mr. Chetan is a schoolteacher, a steady, decent man, who becomes a father figure for Solo. He is also gay, something he hides: homophobia is rife and if his sexuality came out, parents would object to him teaching their children.
Then one night, Mr. Chetan and Betty get a little drunk and share confidences. Solo happens to come downstairs and overhears Betty’s explosive secret. It destroys him and he leaves home, going to New York to stay with Hari, Sunil’s brother. Solo keeps in touch with Mr. Chetan but refuses to communicate with Betty, leaving her heartbroken.
Mr. Chetan moves out to his own place, and falls in love with a security guard, Jackson. They speak of moving in together but Jackson’s jealousy and paranoia about his sexuality coming out (a gay man in the police would not survive for long) make their relationship difficult. Mr. Chetan also reconnects with a childhood love, Mani.
Meanwhile, Solo has found another father figure in Hari. He finds work in New York illegally but tries to get papers so he can stay on legally. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that he is also trying to deal with his demons through self-harm.
The book is told in patois, from the points of view of the three main characters, as they try to negotiate life. This book is about love: romantic love—both straight and gay—the love between parent and child, and the love of friends, the people who become your chosen family. The bond between Mr. Chetan and Betty is strong: they trust and look out for each other. And there are also Betty’s two women friends, Deedee and Gloria, who keep her going.
In spite of this, all three characters carry a loneliness that they never quite shake off. I won’t give out plot spoilers here, but the end had me reeling. The characters are so alive, and the use of patois makes the narration so vivid, you can hear them speak. Not to mention the description of food that you can almost smell.
I loved Betty: tough, independent and proud with a big heart. When she is completely alone—Solo has left and so has Mr. Chetan—she is just about managing to hold it together. Deedee and Gloria decide to cheer her up and drag her to a casino on a Friday night. She feels out of place: she really isn’t in the mood to socialize.
“So I don’t have to answer too much questions, I simply stick on my Betty Happy Face. Lovely, reliable Betty. People don’t want to hear how isolated it does feel sometimes. And I can’t go around saying I’m lonely. That would be another set of shame to add to being a widow with a son who gone his way. So Betty Happy Face going through hard no matter how miserable I feel.”
Then there is Mr. Chetan, unable to be open about who he really is. His family threw him out when they discovered he was gay. “All it would take is one stray look or touch and people would run their mouth. It’s exhausting.” Mani’s life is so different: he married his partner in New York and they live together as a couple. Mr. Chetan can’t understand why things have turned out so different for them: they are both from similar backgrounds, but Mr. Chetan has to hide his true self.
There is heartbreak but also a lot of humour. Some of it had me laughing out loud. Betty and her friends are invited to a wedding of a friend’s son, who is marrying a Hindu woman. They go out and buy saris for the occasion. Deedee buys a green silk sari that she returns because it makes her “look like she is swimming in callaloo soup… I won’t say boo but you see the replacement yellow sari she bought? Now she’s drowning in dhal.”
This is a brilliantly told story with characters that leap off the page. I loved this book.
Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA
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