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Patsy

Review

Patsy

Nicole Dennis-Benn's latest novel is a fierce, compassionate work of literary fiction centered on a queer Black woman navigating her right to choose her own path in life. PATSY is a wonder --- a stunning, compulsively readable feat of inquisitive literature and an indictment of the dangerous Western assumptions surrounding immigrants and Black womanhood.

Pennyfield, Jamaica, 1998. Patsy is 22 and working as a civil servant to support herself, her pious mother, and her five-year-old daughter, Tru. She is achingly dissatisfied with her lot. She had excelled at math in school, yearns to leave her hometown and use her brain for something other than her mundane job. More than that, though, she is intoxicated with memories of her childhood best friend and lover, Cicely. Cicely sends letters from her new life in New York, emphasizing that her marriage to a man is that of legal convenience and entreating Patsy to join her.

"...a stunning, compulsively readable feat of inquisitive literature and an indictment of the dangerous Western assumptions surrounding immigrants and Black womanhood."

Just as strong, if not stronger than Cicely's pull, is the push Patsy feels to leave behind Tru. She loves her daughter, but not with the selfless intensity she's been taught a mother should have. She also can't help but harbor a quiet, powerful resentment towards this young person, whose very existence redefines who Patsy is expected to be and become. She loves her daughter, but PATSY reckons with the truth that there can be needs and desires more powerful than a mother's love, especially in a cultural landscape in which a woman's right to choose is heavily prescribed.

So Patsy applies for a six-month visa, leaves Tru with Tru's previously estranged father and his wife, and promises to return. When she arrives in New York, she confronts the softly shattering truth that the American Dream is not a dream or a nightmare, but drudging reality: capitalistic, racist grayness, overpriced and offering little opportunities for an undocumented dark-skinned immigrant woman. The sham marriage Cicely emphasized is far from it --- she puts up with the indignities and cruelty of her husband for the sake of stability, a middle-class New York life and the good of their son. Though there is still an undeniable spark between them, Patsy cannot stay in Cicely's home and watch her friend surrender her own hopes and dreams of pursuing medicine in order to become an American trophy wife.

Patsy strikes out on her own, moving from one low-wage job to another, finding community with other Black immigrant women. She ultimately ends up as a nanny for white families, caring for the children of strangers in a way she never tended to her own daughter. Years and years go by, and her promise to return to Tru contorts into a cruel echo, which becomes all the more impossible with Patsy's expired visa and her emerging, tender intimacy with a woman who makes her feel more like herself than anyone else in her life ever has.

Back in Jamaica, Tru had held on to her mother's promise to return, blaming herself for the prolonged absence. She struggles to find her place as a young woman in the shadow of her mother's memory, in the gender binary, in the cultural expectations of her home and alongside her father's wife and his sons, with whom her very presence is a charged thing. Dennis-Benn alternates between their perspectives, revealing the similarities between the hearts of mother and daughter that they themselves do not know.

PATSY is an exquisite feat. As Patsy navigates New York, her incisive observations of America, class, colorism and privilege are fresh and earned. Her story challenges the concept of a "good immigrant," of a good mother, of Black motherhood. Dennis-Benn allows Patsy to carve out a path for herself, not to escape danger or to create a better life for her daughter, but because she wants to --- and she deserves to, and I'm so grateful for Patsy's messy, sometimes selfish, chosen path. It is due an intricate literary evocation, and Dennis-Benn's execution is pitch-perfect.

There is tragedy within these pages, exploring the unique intersections of mental illness, class, homophobia, self-harm and gendered violence, and the separation at the center of the book drives both Patsy and Tru. Yet Dennis-Benn writes both women with such incredible voices, such insight and compassion, that the book is wholly a joy to read. And tragedy does not triumph over Patsy or Tru. Ultimately, the author chooses to let PATSY resonate with forgiveness, growth, dignity, queer joy and love.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on June 21, 2019

Patsy
by Nicole Dennis-Benn

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631495631
  • ISBN-13: 9781631495632