Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

Review copy courtesy Colette Jones, a regular and valued visitor here

Review copy courtesy Colette Jones, a regular and valued visitor here

Heliopolis does already have a legitimate claim to one award in the 2009 Man Booker contest — it is easily the fastest-paced of the 13 novels in the longlist dozen. James Scudamore’s action-driven plot has its complexities, but the author is an able craftsman and the pages fly by.

The novel is set in Sao Paulo in the present. Its central character, Ludwig “Ludo” Dos Santos, is an “orphan” — he has a mother and was raised by her but the patriarchal nature of the society says that with an unknown father he is relegated to orphan status. Born in the favela of Heliopolis (favelas are communities of squatters that, over time, evolve into recognized neighborhoods), both he and his mother were “adopted” by the wealthy Carnicelli family. In Ludo’s case, the adoption has been formalized — a central theme of the book is his attempt to deal with the dilemma of having a foot in both worlds.

The book opens with Ludo, age 27 and employed in an advertising agency, in the bed of his adopted (and married) sister, Melissa, in her penthouse apartment which has a view down the avenue that bisects the Garden District to the “smog-cloaked towers of downtown”. He has more than half an ear turned to the arrival of a helicoptor on the helipad on the roof of the tower, since Melissa’s father regularly drops in on his way to work. The separation of the classes in Sao Paulo is not just economic and figurative, it is literal:

Melissa’s father, Ze Fischer Carnicelli, hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years. He lives in a gated community of 30,000 inhabitants, way out of town, and is flown from there to his downtown office every morning in a helicoptor that has the word Predator painted graffiti-style over its nose, along with gnashing teeth and a pair of evil yellow eyes. He’s approaching retirement, but still keeps regular office hours. A chauffeur drives him between his house and the heliport, then back again in the evening. During the day, he might hop to another high-rise to meet someone for lunch, or to attend an afternoon meeting, but he never touches the pavement. It’s not just a question of safety: if he went by car he could get snared in a traffic jam lasting hours. Nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.

While other supporting characters will be introduced, that pretty much takes care of the crucial elements of the plot, all in the first four pages. Ludo’s mother is the cook at Ze’s home on the “farm”, actually a compound that is a luxurious weekend retreat where Ze, a politician as well as businessman, conducts his most important business. She spends most of the five-day work week concocting the food that will be central to the weekend entertainment and work.

Food, in fact, is an important element of Heliopolis. Each of the chapter headings references a food (Jacaranda Honey, Feijoada and Crab Linguine are just a few examples — Warm Rolls and Peanuts are a couple of more prosaic ones, underlining the class split). The device is more than a clever trick as each chapter does feature the food of the title. More important, it is Ludo’s discovery that the city cook of the family is making the same dishes from the same recipes as his mother that starts his personal questioning of his mother’s place and history, which is another plot thread of the book.

The conflicts that result from all these elements are quite predictable and it would be a spoiler to simply detail them. Like last year’s Booker winner, The White Tiger, this book is an examination of the gap and tension that exists between the classes in the emerging economic powers of the BRIC block. Unlike that book which is characterized by both anger and politics, however, this one is more just a story. That is perhaps a reflection that Aravind Adiga grew up in that world — James Scudamore grew up in Japan, Brazil and the UK and now lives in London. He knows the world of which he writes, but not from the same perspective the Adiga does.

Which means that while Heliopolis is an entertaining novel, it is not much more. As noted previously, its greatest strength is that the action is developed competently and moves quickly — but when you have finished the book you don’t know much more about class conflict in Brazil than you do already. And while Ludo does get developed as a character, most of the rest are one-dimensional supporting actors to the plot.

Heliopolis probably deserves its place on the longlist, although other books certainly would have been equally as worthy (personally, I would have preferred Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but that is a matter of taste). It would be a surprise — and a disappointment with the jury — if it moves on to the shortlist.

In conclusion, special thanks to Colette Jone’s for sending me her copy of Heliopolis. It has not been published in North America (and a quick scan does not show a publication date) and was awaiting reprinting in the UK, so without her help my project to read the entire Booker longlist would have been frustrated. Yet another example, that friends of blogs are valuable to us all. Thanks, Colette.

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21 Responses to “Heliopolis, by James Scudamore”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Hey, you’re welcome!

    Even though I didn’t get past page 20 of The White Tiger, I feel this is a better book than that “winner” but I think this year’s judging panel is quite different from last years’, and therefore I do not think it will make the shortlist.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks again. And I am inclined to agree with you on this book’s shortlist prospects.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Sounds fun, I may pick it up in due course, but it’s already getting mentally filed by me under the entertainment space along with the pulps and so on rather than under the literary space with the Pushkins.

    Which isn’t knocking it, but it sounds like a good mainstream novel, rather than an example of the best literary fiction of the past year.

  4. P.S. I Love You Says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here, and be the first to say that I actually think it will make the shortlist. I enjoyed the novel very much. I found the action to be gripping at times (so much so that I am even willing to categorise it as a thriller) and thought the author was excellent at painting this picture of the rich and poor in Sao Paulo.

    Your comparison to ‘The White Tiger’ is apt. The big revelation in that novel was given away at the end of the first section. In ‘Heliopolis’, however, we are left guessing until the end as to what the big revelation is going to be (don’t want to spoil it for anyone). I think Scudamore uses some interesting literary devices – as you have detailed in your review – to make it even more gripping than Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’.

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I wouldn’t be disappointed to see it make the shortlist. It was bumped off my top 6 but not without some internal deliberation.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree that whether or not this book is on the shortlist is going to tell us something about what the “tilt” of this year’s jury is. If it is there, I’d suggest it shows a preference for story over introspection (bumping Mantel and Mawer up the list from the better-known authors). If it isn’t, the contemplative (Toibin, Trevor) would look to have more favour.

    Perhaps even more important, given the six big names on the list (add Byatt and Waters to the four already mentioned), how many are the judges going to set aside to promote lesser knowns into the final six. This book is my favorite of the “action” novels from that category, the introspective ones (Foulds, Hall, Harvey) are a little tougher to rank.

    My guess is that this one does not make the cut — given my Booker jury prediction record, that pretty much makes it a sure thing for the shortlist.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The comments have increased my interest in this one, I’ll be watching with interest to see if it makes the cut.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think this might be one Booker title that moves up the list for you, given your reading interests. In its own way, it has a noir quality to it. I’ll say no more at this point.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    My interests move around a fair bit, all the Central European stuff and generally fiction in translation for example, but I have to admit novels that engage with issues of society and justice are an interest of mine, and so is noir, so I suspect you’re right. I’m hoping to enjoy The White Tiger more than you did (well, I’m hoping to enjoy it, which is infinitely more than many bloggers did), in part because of its focus on those themes.

    Although, and here I digress, I’d be amazed if The White Tiger even approaches a fraction of the skill of Vikram Chandra. This, however, has no such easy comparison with a better writer, and so is more tempting for that.

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    It’s coming out from Europa in a couple of months. I’ve had a lot of good luck with their titles in the past.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It is not a great book by any means, but it was an interesting one. There is not a lot of literature that looks at modern South America and this volume, at least, was a good start.

  12. Guy Savage Says:

    I have an ARC for review on http://www.bookreview.mostlyfiction.com so I’ll let you know.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Keep your expectations low and it may be a worthwhile experience. I do think we have to give contemporary authors a chance.

  14. Guy A. Savage Says:

    I’ve been pleased with most of Europa’s titles: Peter Kocan, Massimo Carlotto, Steve Erickson, Jenn Ashworth.

    Most of my newer/newish reviews go to mostlyfiction. But you’re right, I do need to give contemporary authors a chance. I’l be honest: I can pick out classics and enjoy them to one extent or another whereas new books are not so easy for me to sieve through. My radar is off or perhaps it’s the media blitz.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Point taken, Guy. I’d say that when I pick up a “classic” (even one that I don’t know a lot about) I have an 80 per cent expectation that it will be very good to excellent. Whereas, with a contemporary novel, that expectation would be far less (perhaps even as low as the corollary 20 per cent). Still, I think “readers” — which is how I would characterize myself — should be devoting some of their time to contemporary authors.

    Also, thanks for reviving this thread. It has brought back some very good memories of Heliopolis. I was very surprised when it made the longlist and even more surprised that I could not buy a copy after it had (the publisher would appear to have had a less positive impression than the jury) — if it wasn’t for Colette sending me her copy, I would never have read it. I do think it is the kind of book that fits Europa’s apparent mandate.

  16. Guy Savage Says:

    It’s the same thing over here in America. Books make the Booker list but still don’t have a publisher. You think it wouldn’t be so, but there you go.

    I am going to look up a quote I came across recently about the reliability of classics and then come back. It hit a nerve.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Europa also publishes Muriel Barbery (Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody), two books that I enjoyed, but they are not perhaps as good as their sales figures indicate. I do appreciate that there is a publisher which is making these “second rank” authors available in North America. I certainly salute publishers like New Directions, Melville House and Pushkin who are making work in translation or overlooked works available but it is also heartening that someone is paying attention to contemporary writers.

  18. Guy A. Savage Says:

    I liked Hedgehog but didn’t care for Gourmet Rhapsody as much.

    Here’s the quote:
    “I’m passionate about literature, and like anyone who’s passionate, I suffer. I expect a good deal from novels. I’ve been disappointed so often that over the last ten years or so I haven’t dared to open a new book. I wait for time to do the sorting. I only read classics now. I’ve spent these last eighteen months reading Balzac, whom I underestimated, but Proust brought me back to him.”

    From The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse.

  19. Guy Savage Says:

    Just finished this one. I liked it–not crazy about it. There was something missing….

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I remember the action — I also remember there was not much else. A good beach read for some, I’d say. And those who are more interested in contemporary Brazil would probably find more than I did in the book.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I did pick this up in the end. I see above I mentioned filing it in the entertainment space mentally, seeing the latest comments I’m pleased that was my thought because it does sound like something I’ll want to read to while away a pleasant hour rather than to be challenged.

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