Heliopolis is the story of a boy and his city; Ludo, the boy, and São Paulo, the city, exist in a sense because of each other. Ludo is the child of a cook for a wealthy family; according to family lore, Rebecca, the matriarch, found Ludo and his mother in a favela, or slum, where Rebecca was doing charity work. She recognized Ludo's mother's talent and brought her to work for her husband and daughter. Rebecca and her husband, a wealthy supermarket baron, raised Ludo alongside their daughter Melissa, with whom Ludo, now in his twenties and working in an ad agency, is having an affair.
Scudamore alternates between the past and the present as Ludo navigates the city and the drastic class and economic differences that define it and the people who live there. Ludo's adoptive family represents the ultra-rich upper class inhabiting isolated gated communities protected by armed guards or bullet-proof high-rises; relaxing in obscene luxury but afraid to walk the streets, they live in gilded prisons. Meanwhile the poor teem in filthy, inescapable poverty that drives them to desperation and marks them indelibly as outcasts.
Ludo represents the middle ground, neither rich nor poor; a child of the slums raised among the rich, he's derided by both and accepted by neither. The city of São Paulo is as much a character as any person in the book, and Scudamore describes its streets and buildings and squares like something out of science fiction or dystopia. It was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and the novel is arresting and heartstopping at the same time, a suspenseful literary page-turner about class and identity and the way one defines the other. Scudamore sets up several mysteries at the beginning and my only quibble with the book is the way they peter out by the end; otherwise though, Heliopolis is an engrossing, smartly written character study of a young man and the city that made him who he is.
Come back tomorrow for my interview with author James Scudamore.
More in my Publisher Spotlight series on Europa Editions:
- Introduction to the Series,
- Tuesday: Interview with editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds,
- Wednesday: Review of Heliopolis, by James Scudamore, nominated for the Man Booker Prize,
- Thursday: Interview with James Scudamore.
- Monday: Review of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky, due out next month,
- Tuesday: Interview with Alina Bronsky,
- Wednesday: Review of Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb,
- Thursday: Review of The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.