Niyati Keni’s debut novel is set in Puerto, a port town in the Philippines in 1981, and tells the story of 8 year old Joseph Santos sent to work as a houseboy with his ‘aunt’ Mary Morelos who lives on Esperanza Street. The novel recounts his growing up surrounded by a large cast of colourful characters: independent and serious Aunt Mary, her motherly housekeeper America, Joseph’s troubled father Dante, a host of street vendors and small business people leading provisional and precarious lives in poverty. Class differences in the community and on Esperanza Street are clearly defined: at the top end lie large villas overlooking the sea,where people can afford education and private doctors. Towards the bottom end, and in particular in the area of Greenhills, the inhabitants are crammed together in the shacks of a slum. Education and books are a theme and not just for the rich: Joseph is a reader and enjoys the books in Aunt Mary’s house, but also borrows books from Baby-Lu, a beautiful young woman arrived in Puerto from the country, who lends him Jean- Paul Sartre’s ‘The Age of Reason’ amongst other things (and authentically with Picasso’s Guernica on the cover, which is the now ancient edition I have!). Aunt Mary gains her status in the community by her education in Manila and Europe, but poorer families like Joseph’s and that of the curandero- healer- Uncle Bee, also aspire for their children to train and better themselves. So a portrait is painted of an island community with a way of life which has evolved and functions thanks to the ingenuity and good neighbourliness of its people. They are helped to bear life’s sorrows and tribulations by the two Catholic priests, Father Mulrooney and Pastor Levi, who has several children, and who offer the community a faith which is generous, warm and forgiving – and tolerant of the beliefs in sorcery which still have a powerful hold.
Yet a threat to the community becomes slowly apparent in the shape of the local boy made good Eddie Casama, who wants to make money out of developing the port and sacrificing the businesses and homes of the people who live there. The writer reveals gradually the extent of his influence and the narrative is driven by the progress of his plans and the community’s resistance to them.
The story is told through the eyes of the growing Joseph and the longings and fantasies of the growing adolescent are incorporated into his perspective on the characters and events which surround him. His description of the beautiful sensuality of Baby-Lu reflects his own desire and his envy of handsome Dub and the competent and talented Benny, reveal the fragility of his own sense of self.
The author uses striking and original imagery to evoke both character and place: Benny Morelo sits reading in the kitchen ‘folded like a seabird on an old stool’. And ‘beyond the jetty, the fine blue cloth of the sea was studded with boats, white lines of surf trailing from them like pulled threads’. And the sea is ever present, glimpsed at from different points on Esperanza Street, from the jetty and the coast road. It represents not just the source of livelihood for this island community but also a sort of threshold to a future of possibilities, of betterment. Beyond the sea lies Manila, the States and Europe, sources of education, wealth and sophistication. The sea embodies an escape from poverty for characters such as Suelito, perhaps a kind of hope- Esperanza. Yet others will not leave and must focus their hopes on what life brings them closer at hand. For Joseph this is connected with growing up and this is cleverly marked by Benny’s gift to him at the end of the book.
This book was a joy to read: its focus on character avoided stereotype and sentimentality and there was enough narrative progress to keep the reader engaged. Above all I enjoyed Niyati Keni’s simple but striking imagery, her alliteration and the rhythm of her sentences. Thanks to Niyati Keni and to publishers andotherstories for bringing this book to us.