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From Brighton to Brazil - cracking debut novel
on 15 March 2011
The closest Brighton usually gets to Brazil is in the pages of a dictionary, but in "Invisibles" the two are drawn together in the life of Joel Burns, a thirty-five year old dentist who lives in Brighton as does his mother, Jackie, and partner Debbie from whom he is separated. When Joel sees a news clip of a bus hijack in Rio de Janeiro, where Joel and Jackie lived until Joel was ten, he is convinced that one of the bystanders is his Brazilian father. What makes this more unusual is that Jackie has always told Joel that his father is dead, although Joel has never quite bought into this story which is at least part of the cause of his problems with Debbie. The solution? Head off to Rio and see if he can track down this person.
Joel's quest is helped by the fact that his childhood friend Liam has conveniently recently landed a job in Rio giving him a place to stay and at least a starting point. Once there, he also encounters a struggling musician, Nelson, who is fighting hard, and failing, to keep his head above water. If this is a convenience or a hindrance to Joel's quest is the subject of much of the book as Joel seeks to find the truth about what happened to his father.
At this point, I would usually say something like `first-time author, Ed Siegle', but I'm not going to as that is misleading. Not because it's not factually correct, but because the book is so well plotted and put together that is has almost no signs of this being a first time effort and looks more like the work of a highly experienced writer. If I had to liken Siegle to a writer that you may have read, then there are hints of Nick Hornby in terms of style, particularly in those books where Hornby is at his least overtly lad-literature end. There's a similar balance of humour and style, and Siegle shares Hornby's passions for music and football - well, this is Brazil.
Siegle gives a satisfying arc to almost all of his characters, be that Joel, Jackie, Debbie, Nelson and to a lesser extent, Liam too. Each learn and change throughout the story and their relationships change as the story unfolds. To achieve this without slowing the development of the central plot line is impressive.
He also gives a nice feel of both Brighton and Rio. Rio is one of those cities that whenever it crops up in a novel acts as one of the characters, but it's a balanced view here, neither concentrating on the very rich nor the very poor, but rather more interestingly looking at those on the margins of the two worlds. Nelson does not live in a "Favela" but is fighting to keep himself out of the violence of poverty. Nelson is an endearing chancer with a good heart. Siegle balances what is clearly a great love and affection for Rio with reality and writes well on Joel's experience of going back to the places he distantly remembers from his youth. Siegle also shows a superb ear for the language and there are echos of Portuguese inflections to the speech patterns of his Brazilian characters without distracting from the natural flow.
There are heavy doses of humour as well as touching moments of the quest to find the long-buried truth about Joel's father. The music of Rio also informs a lot of the book - it's one of those books that really ought to come with a soundtrack. For the ultimate reading of this book, turn up the central heating, pour yourself a "caipirinha" and put on some background samba music.
True, you have to swallow the unlikelihood of Brighton-based Joel seeing a Brazilian hijack on British news in the first place, but thereafter, it's all pretty believable. Fans of books that tie up all the loose ends will also be more than satisfied here, although as a matter of personal taste, I would have preferred a slightly more messy, ambiguous end to things, but that probably says more about me than about the book! It's not without some minor faults, but I loved it.