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Expat life – novel set in São Paulo

19th March 2018

Feast Days by Ian Mackenzie, novel set in São Paulo.

Billed as a “small novel with huge ambition”

I was drawn to read this novel because the publicity stated: “So, we were Americans abroad. We weren’t the doomed travellers in a Paul Bowles novel (who incidentally features on our Pinterest Board of “Top Travel Books, ever?“), and we weren’t the idealists or the malarial, religion-damaged burnouts in something by Greene….” Sounded right up the TripFiction street!

novel set in São PauloSnapshots of expat life are brought together in this engaging, slim novel. The author has chosen an unusual construction, a scattergun of events, observations and social interchanges, all set in São Paulo, experienced through the lens of a nameless wife.

Her husband, an investment banker, has been sent to the city and she has tagged along, with a non-defined status – “a trailing spouse” – but having to make a life for herself. She teaches English, she volunteers at a church where Haitians assemble and as the days pass, her experiences are jotted down. Sometimes they are a mere paragraph, sometimes they are a longer clip.

Early on she and her husband get mugged, a common occurrence apparently – friends of theirs have already chalked up three muggings. She reflects on this and about her surroundings, as she watches the sun set over the city, planes dipping towards the airport. She looks back to the build-up of her marriage, she ponders the role of men and women and children, the function of society, language, and the demonstrations she was witnessing in the city on a very regular basis.

São Paulo is the background constant which links the random paragraphs. There is childlike joy when the protagonist discovers the crosswalk signals outside major buildings depict silhouettes of the building, instead of little walk/stop figures. Observing the old ladies walking their dogs, she learns that the city has the greatest number of dogs under ten kilos in the world and also the world’s largest population of crack addicts (who knew?). I don’t suppose the two are linked but in the marginal world of street level life, anything seems possible. Witchcraft, despite the power of the church, is prevalent, and just watch out for crossroads where voodoo is often practised.

So, a profusion of interesting facts and observations (not always relevant to the story) litter the narrative. It would be an excellent book for those who would like get under the skin of the city as seen by an outsider looking in. As a story, for me, it was a little too random and disjointed.That said, the author can write in a very engaging way!

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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