Is there a word for the male equivalent of sassy? If so, it should definitely apply to James Scudamore's Heliopolis, an easy-to-read black comedy with a hard-hitting edge, that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.
Adopted by a very rich man
The story is set in São Paulo, Brazil, a violent city split into two very distinct classes: the rich, who live in high-rise apartments and commute by helicopter, and the poor, who live in favelas and shanty towns, and provide manual labour and unskilled services for the wealthy.
Into this sharply divided society we meet our narrator, 27-year-old Ludo, who has a rather cosseted, if somewhat vacuous, job at a PR/advertising agency in the heart of the city. But Ludo, who wants for nothing, is lucky to be in his current position.
As a child, he was plucked from a favela with his mother and given a new life by a rich man, Zé Fischer Carnicelli ("a supermarketeer with political aspirations"), and his English wife, Rebecca. Ludo was raised with Zé and Rebecca's only child, Melissa, while his mother became their cook at the farm — "palm hearts, bananas and a small Brahma beef herd" — a luxury retreat used by Zé on the weekends.
Look what can happen in a generation: my mother lived in a flimsy shack, and I have my own place and car, and I can speak and read and write better than most of the playboys you'll meet, because I paid attention in school. But this is no normal case study. What happened to me does not happen. And unless you're extremely good with a football, it definitely does not happen if you are male.
When the book opens we discover that Ludo is having an incestuous affair with his "adopted" sister Melissa, who is a lifestyle journalist ("she only seems to write about the kind of lifestyle that very few — herself among them — can afford"). Melissa lives in an extravagant penthouse suite with her husband, Ernesto, an anthropologist, who is absent for long periods doing research for his doctorate. When Ludo begins receiving anonymous and abusive voice messages on his phone at work, he suspects Ernesto is the culprit.
But then life takes on an even more dangerous twist when Ludo is given a dubious work assignment that takes him back to the favela from which he has turned his back.
The central core of the novel — and what makes it work as a page turner — is the very real danger that Ludo feels as the story progresses. He may have been rescued by Zé, who "hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years", but he is still very much aware of what life is like in the favelas — desperate, difficult and violent.
Indeed, the book paints a far from flattering portrait of São Paulo, a city of 20 million people, where life is cheap and "nothing gets in the way of commerce".
The metropolis as a place of menace, where people are seemingly indifferent to danger and death, is evident from the start of the novel, when Ludo has a run in with a boy who is later shot by a security guard.
The women scream. The victim screams. The cars on the flyover continue to lurch and blare. Just one more frenzied city drama in a thousand, to be forgotten and absorbed into the oozing traffic, and perhaps mentioned in passing over lunch. [...] When the guard gets out his phone to call the police, I look at the pink car-park ticket in my hand and realise there's nothing more I can do but get to work. I'm late enough as it is.
On the whole, Heliopolis is a fast-paced, often comedic read that delves into thriller territory. It also explores several intriguing themes that provide the book with some intellectual weight — the importance of food within cultures and classes, for instance, and the glaring gap between the rich and the poor.
I found it entertaining and illuminating, and I loved Ludo's engaging, often smug, occasionally contrite voice. My thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation.