In recent weeks, as more and more states have been restricting abortions in blatant attempts to challenge the federal precedent set by Roe v. Wade, the question of worth has once again come up. Who is worth more: The person who is pregnant, the life they’ve lived thus far and the future they envision? Or the person who doesn’t exist yet, the idea of a person, its potential? It’s a question that doesn’t end at birth, really — most societies expect mothers to act a certain way, to love a certain way, and women who don’t conform risk harsh judgment. Nicole Dennis-Benn’s sophomore novel, “Patsy,” methodically and unapologetically engages with choices women do and should be allowed to make, and as with her last novel, “Here Comes the Sun,” does so with nuance and grace.
The titular Patsy is 28 when we meet her in 1998, living in Jamaica with her mother, Mama G, and her daughter, Tru. Patsy, who yearns for a life that encompasses more than motherhood and dull work, believes she knows exactly how to get it. As the book opens, she approaches the American Embassy, which could grant Patsy what she wants most of all: to join her best friend and erstwhile lover, Cicely, in New York City.
With her newly minted tourist visa, Patsy must wrench herself away not only from Tru but from everything a child’s life symbolizes to and demands of a parent, while knowing that judgment will surely follow. In her final moments with Tru, Patsy is achingly aware of her own inability to love her daughter as well as she believes she should.
“A good mother would have snapped a photograph of a baby girl not quite six with a mouth fixed like her father’s and eyes that seem to contain many moons that threaten to eclipse the sun,” Patsy thinks. “A good mother would have taken the time to use the very last second to inhale her daughter’s scent of Blue Magic hair oil mixed with baby powder. But she’s late to catch her flight.”
Of course, this very set of thoughts is evidence of Patsy’s deep love for Tru. But it takes more than love to be a good caretaker, and there are desires stronger than love anyway, one of which is the ache for freedom — specifically the freedom to love and be with Cicely in a relationship neither woman would have been able to pursue openly in Jamaica without losing their families, friends, communities and more. While Patsy believes that the United States will give her freedoms she doesn’t have at home, readers may recognize that her plan to overstay her visa and remain undocumented foreshadows a different yet still caged life.
Over the course of the novel, this becomes a recurring theme: a disconnect between Patsy’s desires, ambitions and abilities and what she is allowed and expected to do. Having always loved math and been good at it, Patsy wants to go to college — but she can’t, because she can’t get a scholarship or aid without documentation. She wants an interesting and challenging job, but companies won’t hire an undocumented woman without a degree for anything but janitorial work. She wants to be with Cicely but discovers that Marcus, the man Cicely called her “play-husband,” is nothing of the sort: They aren’t married only for Cicely’s green card but have built a life together and are raising a child. And while Marcus is controlling and violent, he is also wealthy and provides a kind of security that Cicely has always craved.
While Patsy’s life in the United States racks up one disappointment after another, her child grows up in Jamaica, raised by her previously absent father and his wife. Tru, whose given name is Trudy-Ann, has always been more drawn to those things categorized as boyish, and her shortened name suits her as well as the first impromptu soccer ball she learns to kick. While her sections can be as painful as Patsy’s, Tru’s trajectory also demonstrates the ways in which it is possible to deviate from gender and sexual norms even in a country with few protections for LGBTQ people.
Dennis-Benn explores themes of gender, sexuality, motherhood and freedom, as well as colorism and classism and the ways the two intertwine both in Jamaica and the United States. But none of this feels didactic or moralistic so much as integral to the characters’ lived experiences and seamlessly woven through their emotional arcs. Ultimately, “Patsy” is a deeply queer, sensitive and vividly written novel about a woman’s right to want and a child’s right to carve her own path; it is also, as Patsy expresses late in the book, about this hard-won nugget of truth: “Never let anyone define you. Always know that you matter. Your thoughts, feelings, and your desires matter. Your happiness matters.”
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli American book critic and writer and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.
By Nicole Dennis-Benn
Liveright. 432 pp. $26.95