‘Flesh and Bone and Water’ is the debut novel from Brazilian born journalist and short story writer Luiza Sauma; who was later raised in London. One would be foolish not to notice the links between her own transition to the UK to that of her main character; which I feel helps get the passion and connection across in the story from the picturesque, boiling pot of Brazil; to the cold, rainy and bleak London.
The novel follows the life of Andre and jumps between two periods, his life as a rambunctious coming of age teenager and that of an older more regretful man thirty years down the line. The character we meet at the start is someone who has been thrown together by the circumstances that built his life; the death of his mother, his sexual exploits, recklessness of his youth and actions, leaving his home of Brazil, travelling, falling in and out of love, children and now divorce. It is here thirty years away from his coming of age that he begins to receive letters from his maid’s (empregadas) daughter that help build the flashback narrative that Sauma deploys so deftly.
Sauma writes with a passion and eye for detail that is so masterfully executed it is hard to believe that this is her debut novel. I found myself instantly transported to Brazil, with the heat, bustling nightlife and the very Brazilian culture interwoven throughout this intricate and delicate story.
‘Chico introduced me to one of the cooks, Iara, a girl who looked like an Indian. I praised her for the mouth-numbing pato no tucupi we had eaten, and she blushed, telling me that her grandmother taught her to cook. I knew then that she was involved with Chico. To be honest, I’ve never liked jambu. It’s like eating an anaesthetic. Some things, you never get used to. I’m still a carioca, after all.
My next letter will be the last one. It will be the hardest one to write. If you have any humanity left, it will be hard to read, too. I hope it will make you suffer, like I have done.
Luiza Sauma’s ability to write characterisations is phenomenal; there is not one character that she does not competently bring to life or develop, which forces the reader to visualise and care deeply for everyone involved in the unfolding of ‘Flesh and Bone and Water’. Sauma affords the main protagonist Andre enough room to grow over the first third of the book; I for one loved his irresponsibility and unruly behaviour, his apathy to his father’s expectations and his look for escapism from Brazil and everything that reminds him of his mother.
Usually, it was Rita who made my snacks. I couldn’t treat Luana like that.
‘No, there’s nothing I want. Thank you.’
When I closed the kitchen door behind me, I felt weak. My Heart was beating in my throat. I hit myself in the chest and tried to pull myself together. In love with an empregada? I had lost my mind. I hadn’t been interested in girls since Mamae’s death. I’d barely even masturbated, because it made me feel so guilty, like her ghost was watching me. I was practically a virgin, if you didn’t count the fumbling fuck I’d had on the beach when I was fifteen, with a friend of a friend. But with Luana? No. That couldn’t happen.
I went to the TV room, where Thiago was flicking between channels. I flipped on the ceiling fan, and it whirred above us.
‘Well, that makes no difference.’ I popped my head out of the door. ‘Pai!’
No answer. I could hear him whispering with Luana in the Kitchen.
‘What, what?’ he said
‘Does this place not have air conditioning?’
‘Of course it doesn’t.’
‘Why of”of course”?’
‘Stop being so bourgeois. Wear fewer clothes.’
Not since Daphne Du Maurier have I read a female writer who has been able to write so seamlessly as a male. Sauma shows a fantastic ability to write in this gender, causing me never to question the originality of her writing or the mind-set, train of thought and day-to-day dealings of her main protagonist Andre, which highlights her undeniable talent; it is a true highlight of her writing and of ‘Flesh and Bone and Water’.
Sauma has a delectably engaging tone to her writing and I can’t help but feel that this has somewhat to do with her previous career as a journalist, where if you’re not snagged and drawn into an article you can turn the page and find ten other articles to fill it’s place. I didn’t have any issues being drawn into the story by Sauma and many times had to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep. The pacing of the book is perfect and builds over the first two thirds to reveal a twist in the final third that I have to say I never saw coming; it totally blew me away. I found myself shell-shocked for some time after and even had to explain the whole story to my wife so I could tell her how awesome the twist was and talk to someone about it!
The only negative I would say about the story itself is that it was more novella length; not that this is a big issue but I would have preferred to have delved deeper into the lives of the supporting cast especially the life of his father I felt could have been expanded upon. I feel that the narrative of the story and the flashback sequences work well, when we hear from Luana; but it would have been wonderful to hear more about her struggles and the following years after departing working at the family home.
It’s a small thing really the length of the book and the additional details. It has no effect on the flow of the book, the twist and subsequent conclusion – it is a tight extraordinary debut novel. It just felt a shame that so much time was invested into creating these wonderful three-dimensional characters only for them not to be utilised for a larger quantity of work (which I would have gladly read).
Luiza Sauma debut novel ‘Flesh and Bone and Water’ is an enchanting, immersive and strikingly vivid piece of work that grew increasingly hard to put down the further the story developed. I have remarked to people that the story is the greatest bit about this book. There are not many set pieces, or action sequences; it is just a wonderfully told story that ensnares you with its brilliance and simplicity. It was the perfect platform to show her undeniable skill as a writer and we can’t wait to see what she does next?
Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in London. After studying English at the University of Leeds, she worked at the Independent on Sunday’s arts desk for several years. She has an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Award in 2014. She has also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Flesh and Bone and Water is her first novel. She lives in London.
Visit Luiza Sauma.com
Flesh and Bone was published by Viking Books (Penguin Random House) on 23rd February 2017.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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