A Novel That Weighs the Costs of Love and Motherhood

In Patsy, Nicole Dennis-Benn wrestles with the conflicting demands of family and autonomy for an undocumented woman in New York City.

Frances F. Denny / The New York Times / Redux / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Women—especially mothers—make cruel choices in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novels. Take Margot, the protagonist in the Jamaican-born writer’s much-praised 2016 debut, Here Comes the Sun. Margot has sex with the customers at the hotel where she works, earning extra money to put her 15-year-old sister, Thandi, through school. She’s a second mother to Thandi, and she’s trying to save the girl from the sexual depredations that Margot herself experienced while growing up in Jamaica. Day-to-day, Margot doesn’t think the sex work is demeaning. “She sees it as merely satisfying the curiosity of foreigners,” Dennis-Benn writes, “foreigners who pay her good money to be their personal tour guide on the island of her body.” That doesn’t mean she forgives their mother, who sold Margot’s virginity to a stranger at the market years ago. Yet she also goes on to repeat the pattern: In pursuit of her own ambition—to become the manager of a new hotel—Margot starts a prostitution ring composed of young girls from the island.

And consider Delores, Margot and Thandi’s mother, so embittered after years of smiling and selling trinkets to vacationers that she can’t bear the prospect of her own children escaping her fate. Marketing her eldest isn’t enough. In a heartbreaking scene, she lashes out at Thandi and says, “Who yuh know really love a black girl for more than what’s between her legs?” For Thandi, who is already crushed under the weight of her family’s expectation that she drag them all out of poverty, Delores’s verdict couldn’t be bleaker. It promises to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Membah dis, nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.”

Dennis-Benn’s second novel, Patsy, sets out to challenge Delores’s warning, and in forcefully simple prose reveals just how vexed that quest is. Once again, a mother-daughter dynamic drives the story, but this time a different kind of ruthlessness lies at its heart. Patsy, 28 when the novel opens, decides she won’t remain in Jamaica and let her resentments fester. She plans to start life over in America, spurred by the promise of reuniting with her childhood friend and secret lover, Cicely, who has settled in New York. But Patsy’s escape has a cost: She abandons her 5-year-old daughter, Tru.

What kind of mother leaves her child for a lover? Or puts a $600 price tag on her daughter’s virginity? Dennis-Benn, in her novels, is unsparing in her scrutiny of love and the sacrifices—not the gauzy and selfless kind—that it can demand. Her characters are often shortsighted and spiteful. They sometimes hurt those closest to them to protect themselves and pursue their own desires and goals. But what looks like cruelty in Dennis-Benn’s protagonists is also a desperate expression of autonomy, an insistence on claiming a sense of agency in the face of dispiriting alternatives. On the surface, Patsy’s choice to chase her lover to New York is a selfish one. At the same time, it is her rebellion against a vision of yet more lovelessness and inhumanity. “What’s di point of raising up a child in a world I couldn’t change?” Patsy asks herself.

Maybe home is somewhere I’m going, and have never been before,” reads the novel’s epigraph, a quotation from the poet Warsan Shire that aptly blends hope and rootlessness. Dennis-Benn shuttles readers back and forth between Brooklyn, where Patsy’s longed-for reunion with Cicely proves elusive, and Jamaica, where Tru struggles with her own identity and sense of abandonment. Cicely isn’t about to risk the life she’s built in a lovely Crown Heights brownstone, having married an abusive but well-to-do man and become a mother. Meanwhile, depression and the hardness of New York City threaten to overcome Patsy. And the negative space that mother and daughter occupy in each other’s lives looms large.

Delores’s grim edict, it seems, is all too prophetic. The country that Patsy has fled to isn’t so different from the one she left behind, and Dennis-Benn makes sure her protagonist confronts that reality. Obstacles to love, especially for lesbian women, are everywhere. So are struggle and a sense of displacement. The Jamaican hotel workers in Here Comes the Sun go “home to their shabby neighborhoods, away from the fantasy they help create about a country where they are as important as washed-up seaweed.” Patsy’s experience in America is an ironic variation on this theme: She left a country whose citizens are mostly service workers and flew thousands of miles to a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn to end up tending to the same wealthy white people who might vacation on her homeland’s shores. Patsy heartbreakingly details what it takes to survive in America as an undocumented immigrant. After Cicely’s husband kicks Patsy out, she lives in squalor, sharing a twin bed with a co-worker, Fionna, a Trinidadian immigrant, and working at a tacky Jamaican restaurant. She’s a bathroom attendant, plunging sanitary napkins out of toilets, before becoming a nanny for a series of rich Manhattanites.

Yet for all the bleak determinism and brutality in Dennis-Benn’s fictional worlds, what stands out in Patsy is yearning—for opportunity, for pleasure, for connection, almost exclusively among women. That yearning, coexisting as it does within the cold-eyed realism of its setting, helps Dennis-Benn’s second novel strike a solemn balance between entrapment and escape. “We can’t afford to love in dis country. We not at dat place yet as immigrants where we can choose love,” Fionna says to Patsy as they’re rolling hand towels at work. “Like everyt’ing else, we tek what we can get—grab on to any lifeboat so we don’t drown in dis place called America. Love? Love won’t get we papers.” Patsy knows that, but her expectation of intimacy on her own terms, despite the obstacles, is what turns the novel’s otherwise familiar immigrant narrative into one that includes, at times, a surprising idealism about the complicated matrix of sex and love.

Though worlds apart, Patsy and her daughter face struggles that similarly juxtapose harsh social context and travails of the heart. Yet neither of Dennis-Benn’s characters ultimately views herself as a victim. Back in Jamaica, Tru doesn’t neatly conform to the kinds of femininity she sees around her and finds herself stranded among her peers. And in New York, Patsy is forced to reflect on the sense of limitation that drove her away from home. “She was never given the choice to say no the first time her legs were pried open,” Dennis-Benn writes of Patsy early in the novel. “Never given a choice to look at another woman and allow herself to be carried by the feeling,” without fearing a violent attack. Patsy didn’t choose to become a mother—abortion is illegal in Jamaica, so her desire for motherhood was never a part of the equation. Yet Tru is not simply an unwanted burden. As Patsy gears up to go to New York, telling her daughter of her plans becomes an occasion for a hard reckoning with the costs of going after love—a chance to feel the power of making choices from a place of passion, not fear.

Patsy wants to see this escape as a form of freedom for Tru as well. It means not saddling her daughter with the weight of her own dreams or the anxiety of unrealized ambitions. “The absence of a mother is more dignified than the presence of a distant one,” Patsy rationalizes when thinking about the decade that she let go by before reaching out. But after a much-delayed attempt at contacting her daughter ends catastrophically for Tru, Patsy has to answer for keeping her distance. The beginning of their hesitant reconciliation holds unexpected promise: Tru seems en route to becoming the change in their community that her mother sought, ultimately with no input from Patsy at all. And Patsy finally finds a foothold in a place where she can fully love whom she wants.

In the end, Dennis-Benn gives her characters the dose of happiness and self-assurance that many stories about social ills refuse women like them. She does that without facilely wishing away the big issues—racism, homophobia, gender, classism—that her novel tackles. Patsy is a portrait of black queer women grasping for self-determination, and a challenge to the conventions of what is expected of good mothers and good women and good immigrants. Tru’s inheritance from Patsy isn’t years of doting or gifts from America, but instead the permission to thrive in a society that will always threaten to crush her will and desire. In writing beautifully about that unending struggle, Dennis-Benn finds a way to extend to black girls and women some of the love that the world may never offer.