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?