If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery - review by Tom Williams

Tom Williams

Down and Out in Miami

If I Survive You

By

Fourth Estate 260pp £14.99
 

Jonathan Escoffery’s debut novel, If I Survive You, is made up of overlapping short stories centred on a family in Miami. Topper and Sanya are migrants who fled Jamaica as a result of the bloody political violence of the 1970s, which was fuelled by the US government as part of its ‘war on socialism’. Their sons are marked by differences that render them increasingly adversarial: Delano, born in Jamaica, is practical, enterprising and favoured by his father; Trelawny, born in America, is introspective, bookish and avoids eye contact

Anxieties of identity pulse through these stories. Indeed, the outstanding opening, ‘In Flux’, written from Trelawny’s point of view, begins with the question ‘What are you?’ – a question he first hears aged nine and which is then punishingly repeated in varying contexts throughout his life. The story, like much of the book, is written in the second person, a form Escoffery uses to create a tone that is intimate while conveying a subtle sense of self-separation for the characters, as if they are examining themselves from the outside. Trelawny is ‘a rather pale shade of brown, if skin colour has anything to do with race’; when he demands of his mother, ‘Am I Black?’, Sanya can only respond with shaky details of the family’s varied genealogy. School is marked by embarrassment and alienation. He finds it unbearable when his father comes to school and speaks to his class in Jamaican patois. Puerto Rican boys briefly adopt him into their gang at school, speaking Spanish to one another: ‘If you are still enough, no one will notice you in these moments – you’ll become invisible’; once they realise his parents are Jamaican, he is made to feel no longer welcome, only for his Jamaican classmates to exclude him as well.

When studying in the otherworldly realm of a college in the Midwest, Trelawny is now ‘simply, unquestionably Black’. Then, when he visits Jamaica and opens his mouth to speak, he’s a ‘Yankee’: ‘Eventually, you’ll admit to yourself that you are tired. Tired of trying to convince anyone of anything,

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