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.