At the United States Embassy in Jamaica, a woman waits for her visa interview. It is hot. She is nervous. When she is finally called upon, she tells a compelling story that tugs at the heartstrings of her interviewer. The woman gets a visa and, soon after, boards a plane to the US, eager to embrace a new life. It does not take a feat of the imagination to guess what happens next. At this point, immigrant narratives—those that explore the anxiety, desperation, and inner turmoil associated with crossing borders and entering new cultures—are well-worn terrain, attractive to the appetite of modern publishing.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s second novel, Patsy, destabilizes this familiar story through a complex narrator whose decision to leave Jamaica haunts the next decade of her life. Patsy, a woman “just two years shy of thirty,” who works a minimum-wage job as a government secretary, spends most of her days nurturing a fantasy of joining her best friend and first love, Cicely, in America. She also has a five-year-old daughter, Tru, whom, much to her shame, she’s never loved “like she’s supposed to.” When Patsy gets the visa to the US, she seizes the opportunity immediately, leaving Tru behind. Her decision is not fueled by morality or by an obligation to provide for her family. Patsy seeks self-actualization, a chance to live her own life.
To cast Patsy’s decision as selfish would be too easy. Dennis-Benn’s novel successfully depicts the complexity of motherhood, and Patsy’s departure catalyzes a story split between Pennyfield, Jamaica, and Brooklyn, New York. Among the cast of characters—including Cicely; Tru; Tru’s father, Roy; his wife, Marva; their two sons; and Patsy’s mother, Mama G—there are no heroes or villains, only individuals negotiating their relationships to their dreams, to one another, and to their communities. The novel alternates between Patsy’s and Tru’s perspectives over ten years, tracking how Patsy cobbles together a life in Brooklyn while Tru copes without a mother.
Patsy’s vision of a life with Cicely implodes the moment she lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It turns out that Cicely is married to an abusive Jamaican man and has a son. Driven by heartbreak, Patsy tries to establish her own life. She becomes a nanny for white families around the city, rents a room, and eventually finds herself in another relationship. Back in Jamaica, Patsy’s family grapples with the aftermath of her decision. Tru, who has been left with her father, spends the early part of the novel trying to fulfill a vague promise to her mother that she will be a good girl. For the most part, she does, eventually getting into the best high school in the country. But over the years, this promise begins to unravel as Tru struggles with her sexuality and gender identity.
While Patsy sometimes feels burdened by its many plotlines, it examines the messy idea of storytelling as a means of absolution. Patsy’s quest for moral exoneration begins the moment she realizes that Cicely does not share her desire to abandon the life she’s built. After Cicely’s husband forces her to kick Patsy out of their home, the two women have a candid conversation about how they arrived at this moment. Patsy confesses that Tru’s birth awakened her to the fradulence of her existence. “But Tru came, an’ah thought…,” she says to her friend. “Ah realized dat my life is wid you. When yuh told me ah could come to America, ah left every’ting.” It’s a turning point for the narrative, marking the first and last time Patsy is this refreshingly honest.
From that moment on, Patsy resolves to “be a new woman in America” and “do the work to separate her past from her present.” She convinces herself that severing ties with Tru saved them both from a life of inauthencity. Patsy repeats this story so often that the phrase “It’s fah di better” becomes the novel’s refrain. Whom Patsy’s journey benefits is never clear, but Patsy uses her tale to build an emotional and psychological border between herself and Tru. How did a woman who so bravely chose self-actualization become someone who avoids herself? It’s a question that haunts the latter half of the novel but never quite gets answered, leaving us to wonder if Patsy’s decision was worth the costs.