Sauma, Luiza. Flesh Bone and Water. Scribners New York 2017. F;1/18.
I would call this story successfully sentimental. It’s the first novel by this young writer, who grew up in Brazil and was educated and still lives in London. Its success turns on a plot twist, but not in the last-page fireworks manner of Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Here things change near the middle of the story and the effect is just deepening of the characters and the story’s moral weight.
Andre is a rich kid in Rio de Janeiro, teenage son of a plastic surgeon living in a home with two maids, and enjoying carousing and girls in the local nightclubs and on the famous beaches of the city. We see this boy in retrospect narrated by his much older self, now a family physician in London, with children but divorced, and pretty melancholy. The love story is Andre’s attraction to Luana, the younger of the two maids in his childhood home and the other maid’s daughter, who is his age and, being gorgeous and sleeping a few feet away from him, irresistible. Older Andre gets letters from Luana with whom he has lost touch, and goes back to northern Brazil to find her, accompanied by his young adult daughter.
That’s the plot’s bare bones, but trust me the flesh (and the water) up the voltage by a factor of ten. All the major and some of the minor characters are credible and… I want to say morally eclectic. Nobody is perfect but they all live as we would expect each one of them to, shielding and pursuing their interest, achieving success, and making mistakes. Sex, love, money, privilege, responsibility, parenting and moral ambiguity shimmer like reflected light against the sensual background of the Amazon, seen from distant grey middle age, and London.
Sauma, writing a pretty torrid melodrama, deploys at the same time natural literary grace, and sweetly complicates the experience of reading with brief acknowledgement of the fourth wall (“My humiliation was complete. It was the plot of a cheap novella.”) and realistically nostalgic reference to youth from middle age (“I forget that I’m walking with Luana through the streets of Marajo. I catch myself and feel amazed, remembering how we walked the same streets as kids, without the slightest idea of the future.”).
This novel doesn’t pretend to the majesty of Infinite Jest but it’s no Behind Closed Doors-type vacant thriller either. If I can indulge some authorial wishful thinking I hope the kind of reader I imagine looking at my book reviews would enjoy Flesh Bone and Water.