Lucy Simon

Slum-dwellers and high-flyers

Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

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James Scudamore

Harvill/Secker, pp. 279, £

James Scudamore is evidently fascin- ated by borderline personality disorder. His characters veer between moments of machismo-fuelled rage, extravagant eloquence and intense introspection.

The Amnesia Clinic (2007), which earned him the Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 35, was set in Ecuador and depicted the tribulations of adolescence. For his second, bolder novel, he crosses the Andes to the even more turbulent setting of Brazil and heaving, torrid Sao Paolo. There are striking similarities between the books — among them a passion for the South American landscape and the quest for personal identity — but the naive charm of The Amnesia Clinic is here replaced by a more brutal force.

Heliopolis tells of Ludo dos Santos’s trajectory from the favela in which he was born to the highest echelons of Brazilian society. His struggles to reconcile the extreme poverty of his origins with the wealth he comes to know is made painfully evident in his relationships with his mother, adoptive parents, step-sister and boss. His adoptive family comprises Ze Fischer Carnicelli, who ‘hasn’t been down to street level for 15 years … it’s not just a question of safety … nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days’; his wife, Rebecca, who ‘tended to disdain affection in favour of problem-solving’; and the beautiful step-sister, Melissa, whose equal Ludo longs to be.

Scudamore’s world pulsates with life. So many sounds and images are conjured up that at times one feels saturated with it all: ‘the noise, the lack of space, the sweet, garbage smells of rotting banana skins and spoiling chicken’. The pacy and disrupted narrative mimics the chaotic, claustro- phobic world of Sao Paolo itself — a city which covers a huge area, with no nucleus, making it hard to navigate. The juxtaposition of the sordid, mundane existence of those on the street with the bizarre, almost mythic lives of the super-rich, largely spent in their helicopters high above the urban sprawl, makes for vivid, uncomfortable reading.