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Booker Prize 2023 - If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

What are you?

That’s the question you are asked by everyone from a young age. Because to a society that is built on a clear hierarchy of people, nothing is more threatening than racial and class ambiguity. But despite his name, Trelawny has been born in Miami, grown up in American educational institutions and often struggles to understand the English his own father speaks. Topper and his wife Sanya have come to the US in the 1970s, escaping the political unrest in Jamaica and built a life here with their two sons. But cultures can clash within a family, as each member develops in different directions, subject to different influences. Topper and Sanya quickly realised that America has its own set of problems – first and foremost with people who do not look or sound like they are supposed to. While Topper wants his sons to grow up in his own image with strong links to his cultural heritage, Trelawny struggles to carve out his own identity when everyone tries to fit him into a different box. He isn’t accepted as Black, but he is clearly neither Hispanic nor white. No language or label seems to exist that suits him and in a society that depends on labels unfortunately this is not the route to freedom.

Through the eight loosely connected stories in this collection we follow several family members through various struggles, inhabiting their roles and learning about their perspectives. We follow the family through hurricanes and recessions and a whole range of obstacles thrown in the way of this bunch of people desperately trying to survive. Full of burning motivation, they strive and struggle against all odds and more often than not against each other. The anchor the stories return to is Trelawny who we see first as a boy trying to find an answer to the question what he is, then as a young man rebelling against any label people try and stick to him, to making his way to college but then having to realise that after the 2008 financial crash a humanities degree has little value. We watch him trying to fight his way out of homelessness – and loneliness – through a series of jobs that are often absurd, sometimes hilarious but simultaneously tragic.

The stories in Jonathan Escoffery’s debut collection are written in the second person which has the strange effect of abolishing yet simultaneously distance between protagonist and reader. You are put into their shoes, yet “you” never become an “I”. You never truly take up all their identity – perhaps because they cannot either. Though I felt for the characters, I did not manage to truly connect with them emotionally. That distance is further enhanced (at least for all us non-Jamaicans) by Escoffery’s use of dialect. His language is fun to read, it is vibrant and lyrical, pressing and powerful, fresh and new. But it takes some work to get into it, which I did slowly almost without realising it until I was fully absorbed. The young author proves a lot of skill in this cleverly crafted book and the first story in particular makes some striking observations and puts them eloquently and convincingly. If I Survive You manages to break your heart a little but even while keeping you at a distance and it offers a sharp but always humorous criticism of capitalism and racism in the Western world.

Published 2023 by 4th Estate

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