Desperation can lead a person to extreme decisions they wouldn’t otherwise countenance. For a parent, what could be more heart-wrenching than the choice to leave one’s child behind and move to another country in search of a better life? That’s the decision made by the title character of Patsy, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s follow-up to her assured debut, Here Comes the Sun. But one of the satisfying nuances of her second novel is that this heartache is only partly due to the knowledge that, by emigrating from Jamaica to America, single mother Patsy will leave behind her 6-year-old daughter, Tru.
As the novel opens, it’s 1998, and Patsy is still in love with her childhood friend Cicely, who moved to America several years earlier. Patsy hopes to secure a tourist visa—her previous application was declined two years earlier with no explanation—and rekindle their romance. Soon, Patsy leaves Tru and Mama G, her religious mother who collects Jesus figurines, and flies to New York, where Cicely meets her at the airport.
Patsy’s surprise upon reuniting with her friend is one of the many turns this novel takes. Cicely lives in a brownstone in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, is married to an abusive would-be real estate mogul and is raising a son Tru’s age who takes violin lessons at a prestigious music academy. Over the next decade, Patsy fails to find the America—or the Cicely—of her dreams and has to settle for a job cleaning bathrooms in a faux-Jamaican restaurant before securing gigs as a nanny for a host of privileged women.
The story moves back and forth between Patsy’s increasingly disheartening experiences in America and Tru’s grim situation back home. Tru has to live with her father, Roy, a police officer she barely knows. As Tru enters her teens, she struggles with depression and her sexuality, all the while wondering why her mother has been gone for much longer than the promised six months and why she never calls.
The pace sometimes flags, but this moving work about the immigrant experience is distinguished by Dennis-Benn’s compassion for her characters and her acknowledgment that issues related to sexuality and immigration require subtlety and understanding.