5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Something to savour,
This review is from: Heliopolis (Paperback)
There is something about James Scudamore's `Heliopolis' that reminds me of the writing of the young Iain Banks. Given the importance of Banks in what might be described as `interesting mainstream' literature over the past quarter-century, that is significant praise.
The first thing that reminds me of Banks is the prose. It is clear and elegant, enabling the reader to place him or herself fully within a scene with the minimum of effort. Secondly, there is the setting. Sao Paulo as seen by Scudamore is a place on the edge of reality, a strange landscape of high towers and seething slums, of rich enclaves and threatening favelas, home to a society as strictly stratified as anything in The Bridge or Walking on Glass, in which the inhabitants of each stratum can scarcely comprehend the existence of those in any other - the rich seeing the poor merely as a threat, the poor seeing the rich merely as an irritation. This divide is elegantly expressed in the office where the hero works: a tower block fallen into disuse, converted into a shanty town and then, at the last minute, bought by an ad company, converted into their office, its graffiti and crumbling architecture perfectly preserved.
Next there is the protagonist and plot: a young man looks back over the blunders and blind alleys of his brief life, questing (knowingly or not) for the truth (or perhaps `the TRUTH') about himself and his family. The young man himself - Ludo, a boy taken from the slum of Heliopolis and raised amid the gated wealth of Angel Park - is a somehow charming combination of arrogance and naivety, capable of both deep insight and extraordinary insensitivity to others. Throw in a beating, kidnap, a mean-spirited trick involving human blood and a bra, near-incest and obscured sexual relationships and parental bonds and things could hardly be more Banksian.
And this is what worries me. When I was young, I loved no writer more than Iain Banks. I loved the headlong rush of his tales, their imagination, the power of his sentences. But now, 20-plus years on, I feel more and more that there is something Boy's Own-ish about his work, fun - certainly, thrilling - often, but substantial? - I'm not sure. And I feel the same about this book. Are the points it raises about poverty and wealth surprising? Are the characters - neatly drawn though they all are - the sort to last forever in the mind? The plot itself, for all its incident, is actually rather thin, and the incidents themselves often appear to have remarkably little consequence.
Perhaps the most substantial thing about the book is the food described within it. The food cooked by Ludo's mother, the food cooked by Ludo himself. It becomes - as it has done in many other novels - the vector for the expression of emotion, the way in which those - like Ludo, like his mother - too afraid to express their true feelings can give vent to their inner turmoil or joy. While the events of Heliopolis may leave relatively little by way of a lasting impression, the stews and sauces Scudamore describes will long leave a pleasant savour.