Patsy, the title character in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s exemplary second novel, yearns for one thing in the book’s opening pages: an American visa. Her best friend and lover, Cicely, long ago disappeared there, resurfacing in letters that promise a new life, a fresh start, and freedom. And though Patsy is a mother to a little girl, Tru, she desires nothing more than to escape the stifling life of Pennyfield, Jamaica, alone.
But the American dream that Cicely speaks of is far from the reality Patsy finds when she arrives in New York City on a temporary visa. Cicely has not exactly been forthcoming about the truth of her life: she has a son by her abusive, racist husband, and that tie, unlike Patsy’s own to her daughter, is enough to keep Cicely emotionally captive. Patsy’s fantasies of a new life with Cicely quickly dissolve, leaving her alone in an unfamiliar city, without documentation, without money, without community.
Depression threatens to subsume her, but she quickly discovers that as an immigrant, with no access to benefits or a safety net, allowing the “Devil’s cold” to take over will cost her livelihood. Thus begins her life in New York City, first as a bathroom attendant, then as a house cleaner, and ultimately, ironically, as a nanny.
Meanwhile, Tru, Patsy’s daughter, finds herself adrift amid her new life with her father and step family—a new mother and brothers she hadn’t previously known. She misses her mother and tries to follow her imperative to “be a good girl,” though as the years pass, this promise becomes harder and harder to keep. Tru finds solace in excelling at school and in soccer matches with the neighborhood boys. She’s whip-smart and sharp-tongued, refreshingly rebellious and centered as a teenager. Despite her occasionally self-destructive actions, Tru is able to embrace her sexuality and imagine a way out of a culture that doesn’t understand who she is—a hope that helps her navigate the rough waters of her life.
Patsy spans approximately ten years—from 1998 to 2008—and runs the gamut of undocumented immigrant experience: culture shock, indignity, loneliness, confusion, fear, regret, and eventually, uneasy acceptance. Dennis-Benn strives for an authentic portrayal, giving Patsy a distinct voice and emotionality as she grapples with the decisions she’s been forced to make.
Patsy, despite her struggles, can be difficult to empathize with, perhaps in part because of her seemingly careless abandonment of Tru. While there is no imperative for a mother to love her child, and while the idea of Patsy not feeling cut out for motherhood is well established, her break remains incomplete—encased in a sometimes baffling silence. (Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking elements of Patsy’s story is that despite her bravery in fleeing a place where she feels she has no voice, she finds herself even more invisible in America.) As the story progresses, however, it digs into the meat of Patsy’s past, exposing the constrictions placed upon working-class women in Jamaica. As the years pass, Patsy’s feelings about the life she left behind move away from ambivalence, toward reckoning, and ultimately, redemption.
Of course, Patsy’s not the only character in the book whose behavior pushes the boundaries of sympathy. Most, if not all, of the women in Patsy are forced up against their limits. If they often behave in incomprehensible ways, and say unkind things, and refuse to see one another for who they are; if they, ironically, refuse to recognize the desperation they all (sometimes ungracefully) face, then it’s hard not to blame their behavior on the circumstances of poverty and patriarchy and expectation.
Though Patsy gets off to slow start and loses momentum towards its finish, the bulk of the novel is compelling. As Patsy’s story unfolds, it gains poignancy, finding a steadiness of heart. Tru’s sections shine throughout, pushing as they do to understand a child’s sense of loss, loneliness, and otherness. Dennis-Benn has an eye for detail and ear for dialogue, and she does not shy away from confronting the brutal reality that immigrants face in a place like New York City. As the narrative winds to a close, Patsy may be no closer to her dream of American citizenship, but she may be closer to the freedom of spirit she’s been looking for all along.