August 19, 2022

Book Review: Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni @andothertweets

The exciting small publisher, & Other Stories, known for introducing its readers to quality literary fiction in translation, has now brought out a debut novel by British-born author Niyati Keni.

 Esperanza Street opens in the working port of a market town in the Philippines in 1981.  A ‘coming of age’ story narrated by a Joseph, a houseboy, it has, as its second main character, the street that gives its name to the novel.  The area, with its jetty, chapel and boarding house, gradually emerges in the book with its own individual and quirky details, while at the same time acquiring universality – it could represent many a poor community, marginal to globalisation.  Both the boy and the street must respond to the ‘new and remorseless beat’ of progress and development and their futures are intertwined.

When we first meet eight year old Joseph he is a quiet observer, only partly understanding the conversations and actions of the adults around him, the unanswered questions around his own origins. By the age of fifteen, in the six month period when most of the novel takes place, he understands more, learns the hard way who holds the power and the personal consequences of opposing it. The outside world starts to encroach as Joseph’s awareness grows, TVs, hi-fis, Frigidaires appear in Esperanza Street and the Americans develop a telescope to see further into the universe.  Unavoidably, Joseph is drawn into the drama of the lives of others, learns the complexities of love, and becomes increasingly frustrated by his own limitations, his inability to act in the way he wants in order to make things better.

 One of the many striking successes of the novel lies in the richness of its characters. With names like Baby Lu, Lola Lovely, America, Dante, Fidel, each one, however minor in the plot, is valued and has a lively, often humorous, presence. All strata of society are included, from those living in the high expensive apartments to those living in shacks built of fruit crates and sacking.  It is the humanity and generosity of the characters, despite their circumstances, that offers hope in the novel.

The narrative’s pace echoes that of the rhythm of the street.  Keni’s writing style is sensual and textured, she precisely captures the smell of local foods or of the dust, flowers and camphor of the boarding house.  Yet she avoids the trap of exoticism. The viewpoint is that of an insider, not a tourist. The heart of the book is the emotional life of the boy and the main recurring theme is that of choice.  When one of the characters says: ‘We can move with the times or be left behind. Another responds, ‘Not for everyone.  Not everyone has a choice’. We follow Joseph’s attempt to exercise his choice as he approaches manhood in Esperanza Street. This book is a delight to read.

 by Caroline Maldonado

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