Heliopolis – James Scudamore

Having listened to the praise that has been coming out of ‘The Converted One’s’ mouth for James Scudamore’s debut novel ‘Heliopolis’, I was really looking forward to it. Before I started it though I suddenly thought ‘do we actually have the same taste’ which is something I had never thought before. We both loved ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ but other than that we haven’t read any other books in common bar a Harry Potter or two with ‘The Converted One’ isn’t the biggest fan of. So how would ‘Heliopolis’ fare? Would I not get it as I am not from Brazil or would James Scudamore create the world of Sao Paulo so vividly I would feel I had walked the streets myself?

If you have never been to Brazil, like me, then ‘Heliopolis’ will definitely give you an insight. Though born in the UK Scudamore lived in Brazil (as well as Japan) during his childhood. The streets are vividly drawn in a culture where rather than knock down or redevelop you simply either flatten and rebuild or simply move elsewhere and start again. It is also, as one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in the world, also very much a crime leaden and poverty stricken city. In Brazil the rich are rich and the poor are poor “there is no middle class”.

Our narrator Ludo was one such boy born into poverty in favela’s of Heliopolis not far from Sao Paulo. However his destiny changed and one day rich man’s wife (and also British) Rebecca comes across Ludo and his mother during a day out for the charity she works for and decides to adopt Ludo and take his mother in as the cook at their weekend retreat. From then on in Ludo sees a life quite unlike any that he has ever seen before. Moving to Angel City is a slightly traumatic experience as the rich even employ and discipline the police. If your son or daughter rights off your Porsche in a drunken drug fuelled crash, as long as they are ok, who cares you just buy another one.

This is all told in hindsight as we follow a week in Ludo’s life. We open with the discovery the Ludo is sleeping with his adoptive sister who is also married, has been given a job by her (and his adoptive) father in advertising where his boss hates him and someone is leaving him threatening messages on his answer machine. As for a social life? Well Ludo spends most evenings alone with a bottle of vodka. In fact in many ways he has become one of the affluent people who coast through life he hates.

As for the plot, well Ludo leaves his adoptive sisters bed on morning and stops on the way to work at one of the old squares no one could be bothered to build over or renovate and is slightly lost in history. Whilst there a beggar tries to persuade him to give him money and Ludo pushes him away, a few minutes later the boy is shot by a security guard and Ludo feels the guilt. The very same day Ludo is given a new job, not only working for Ernesto his adoptive sisters husband, but working with the people of the ‘favela’ or as his boss puts it “the people he knows” leading Ludo to ask himself some big life questions.

Did I like the book, yes I did. I thought that the description of Sao Paulo was brilliant both in the poor and rich parts. I did however feel that though the description was great Scudamore had done what a few authors do and gone for description (not prose – though this was good) over content if that makes sense. One rich house invariably is the same as another; one beggar shares the same story as another and so on. I did like the contrast that it presented though and I do find it fascinating that a country can be so black and white in terms of rich or poor. I am glad I have read it, even if maybe a short story could have sufficed instead.

For ‘The Converted One’ however it was a true eye opener, as he was very much brought up in the ‘Angel Park society’ and his family had truly shielded him from it as much as possible. Yes, of course he had seen squats and the like but I don’t think having never been allowed, or dared to go near them he knew what it was like in there and that’s been quite and emotional thing for him. See it just shows you how experience in life can make you relate quite differently to the same book. Let’s see how he gets on with ‘The Life of Pi’ and then ‘The Kite Runner’ experiences of which we have never had anything close to. Do you think your personal experience can sway your feelings about a book?


Filed under Harvill Secker Books, James Scudamore, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review

15 responses to “Heliopolis – James Scudamore

  1. An interesting review, Simon. I hadn’t realised this one was set in Brazil. It sounds fascinating, and I might actually get around to reading it when it’s available as a small-format paperback.

    Do you think you need experience of a place to understand it when you read about it, though? Isn’t the test of great literature its ability to transport you to a place — whether geographical, spiritual, emotional etc — that you’ve never been to before? While it certainly might help if you have some background info, I like seeking out books that tell stories that are completely different to anything I might have experienced before — which might explain why I’m drawn to the dark stuff.

    • I would give this a shot Kim, its good.

      I completely agree with you on the exprience thing, a great author will transport you. I do think though if you have some feelings or inside knowledge experience of something it can add to the reading experience. Like with the Wilderness I often look after my Great Uncle who has Alzheimers and so its effecting me even more than if I had no experience. Mind you if that book doesnt affect a reader I am amazed.

  2. I loved this book and currently writing my blog post on it. I enjoyed your insights (and the converted one’s) although find it interesting that the thing that impressed me most about the book, you didn’t mention. Goes to show that we all as readers take away different impressions from books. Anyway, as for impressed me most, you’ll just have to read my review!

    Did the converted one think it was an accurate portrayal of Sao Paolo? I thought that perhaps Scudamore had taken dramatic license with the setting because it came across as futuristic to me.

    • Oh am intrigued!

      As for is it realistic. The Converted One said that was a slightly diluted version of Sao Paulo. Some bits are amazing but the rough parts are beyond anything anyone could write. He also said he hopes no one ever does as no one would ever go.

      • Interesting! It makes me think of how The Other Hand did not serve as a travel brochure for Nigeria and did the country no favours.
        I want to read Scudamore’s debut novel, The Amnesia Clinic, now.

  3. I have often fallen madly in love with a book because it so perfectly describes a place dear to my heart. Others don’t necessarily get it though. However, I have read books about places I’ve never been, but have felt like I had based on the brilliance of the author.

    Speaking of the horrors of the Brazilian ghetto, have you ever seen the movie City of God? Talk about feeling the ugliness down in your bones…amazing, disturbing movie. It won a handful of Oscars in 2004.

    • Sandy, City of God is one of my most favourite films ever. I’ve seen it many years ago but still stuck in my mind. I only just found out that it was based on a book, and now am hunting for the book.

      Simon, I do think personal experience factors so much in how we perceive a book. (An example is my reading of Xinran’s Miss Chopsticks in comparison to Claire’s.) It doesn’t mean we don’t get more out of it if we don’t have any related experience, as books do transport us to times and places we’ve never been, but how we are moved by the book emotionally because of some personal experience does affect our opinion of it.

      I think I might be able to relate to Heliopolis (like The Converted One) because I grew up in a place where mansions and mudhouses are side by side.

      • Claire I totally think that personal experience can add to a book for you. I think the reason The Converted One was more into this book than me was because it’s home.

        I do think a good author or book will take you anywhere. I mean I didn’t live through World War II but some books make you feel like you experienced it completely.

    • I tried to watch City of God but The Converted One blinking kept switching it off. I think it disturbs sometimes to see the truth, though through film, of what your homeland is like. For example as I feel when I see talkshows like Jeremy Kyle here and think “not everyone is like that” though Brazil is beautiful its quite a dark place in some parts.

  4. I’ve just started to read this one – so am ignoring this post – back soon!

  5. I loved this book! I think personal experience shapes a lot of our thoughts when reading a book. I have been to Brazil, but not Sao Paulo.

    I too thought it was futuristic and so not meant as an accurate reflection of how the city is today, but how it could become in the near future. I just loved the great story.

    • Glad you loved it, I liked it but wasnt behind it 100% have to admit. I am not sure it’ll make it on my shortlist or not, let’s see how the final few go.

      As for sao paulo ‘The Converted One’ lived there for quite a few years and said its Brazil in all its rawness and that its just a very futuristic city, nothing in comparison to Brasilia the capital which was built purely to be the capital and yet hardly anyone is in past 9pm – no one lives there much. I am excited about going… and it may be a perminant move – eek!

  6. I’ve very impressed that the converted one had read this before the Booker list. This article seems to say that it had only sold 3 copies! http://bit.ly/EuFon

  7. Pingback: Lost World – Patricia Melo « Savidge Reads

  8. Pingback: Heliopolis | Paperback Reader

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