Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn | Literary Fiction | Liveright Publishing/ Oneworld Publications | 432 pages | review by Trae Higgs
Patsy is one of the most compelling novels I have read. It is honest, complex, and brilliantly descriptive. From the Patois dialogue to the vivid descriptions of working-class life in Jamaica and America, Dennis-Benn makes you feel as though you are Patsy.
Patsy has always dreamed of going to America to be with her childhood friend and hopeful lover Cicely. When Patsy finally receives her temporary American visa, she prepares to leave Pennyfield in seek of the American dream.
We are introduced to Patsy’s child, Tru, who is sent to live with her father whilst her mother, literally, chases her dreams. We meet Patsy’s mother, Mama G, a staunch Christian woman who may as well be one of Jesus’ disciples. Naturally, Mama G disapproves of Patsy’s decision to abandon Tru and go to America. Though Patsy’s decision to leave her child in pursuit of her happiness seems harsh at first, Dennis-Benn paints a picture of a painful past, and we soon understand that Patsy has to leave her child and her past behind.
Although thousands of miles apart, both Patsy and Tru go through life-changing experiences. We watch Tru navigate the usual terrors and wonders of childhood and adolescence with the added burden of wondering if Patsy will ever return. Across the sea, things fall apart for Patsy as she realizes that the American dream is not for women like her: undocumented and poor. Through Patsy and her friends’ experiences of cleaning toilets and living in basement rooms, Dennis-Benn perfectly captures the daily struggles of undocumented immigrants living in the US.
What is most striking in Patsy, is Dennis-Benn’s decision to allow both mother and child to explore their very separate and different queer identities. Rarely are writers afforded the space to write about more than one queer character without having their work labelled as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘too queer’.
As the novel unfolds, we witness Patsy explore her sexuality, whilst Tru grapples with gender expression and identity. Neither of the characters explicitly label themselves as lesbian, gay, queer or trans, they simply are.
Though Dennis-Benn gracefully unpacks motherhood, queerness, classism, colorism, and racism through the lives of Patsy and Tru, ultimately the book is the journey of a mother and a child carving a space for themselves.
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