Author, Book review, Brazil, Fiction, James Scudamore, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Heliopolis’ by James Scudamore


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 288 pages; 2010.

Is there a word for the male equivalent of sassy? If so, it should definitely apply to James Scudamore’s Heliopolis, an easy-to-read black comedy with a hard-hitting edge, that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Adopted by a very rich man

The story is set in São Paulo, Brazil, a violent city split into two very distinct classes: the rich, who live in high-rise apartments and commute by helicopter, and the poor, who live in favelas and shanty towns, and provide manual labour and unskilled services for the wealthy.

Into this sharply divided society we meet our narrator, 27-year-old Ludo, who has a rather cosseted, if somewhat vacuous, job at a PR/advertising agency in the heart of the city. But Ludo, who wants for nothing, is lucky to be in his current position.

As a child, he was plucked from a favela with his mother and given a new life by a rich man, Zé Fischer Carnicelli (“a supermarketeer with political aspirations”), and his English wife, Rebecca. Ludo was raised with Zé and Rebecca’s only child, Melissa, while his mother became their cook at the farm — “palm hearts, bananas and a small Brahma beef herd” — a luxury retreat used by Zé on the weekends.

Look what can happen in a generation: my mother lived in a flimsy shack, and I have my own place and car, and I can speak and read and write better than most of the playboys you’ll meet, because I paid attention in school. But this is no normal case study. What happened to me does not happen. And unless you’re extremely good with a football, it definitely does not happen if you are male.

When the book opens we discover that Ludo is having an incestuous affair with his “adopted” sister Melissa, who is a lifestyle journalist (“she only seems to write about the kind of lifestyle that very few — herself among them — can afford”). Melissa lives in an extravagant penthouse suite with her husband, Ernesto, an anthropologist, who is absent for long periods doing research for his doctorate. When Ludo begins receiving anonymous and abusive voice messages on his phone at work, he suspects Ernesto is the culprit.

But then life takes on an even more dangerous twist when Ludo is given a dubious work assignment that takes him back to the favela from which he has turned his back.

Fast-paced narrative

The central core of the novel — and what makes it work as a page turner — is the very real danger that Ludo feels as the story progresses. He may have been rescued by Zé, who “hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years”, but he is still very much aware of what life is like in the favelas — desperate, difficult and violent.

Indeed, the book paints a far from flattering portrait of São Paulo, a city of 20 million people, where life is cheap and “nothing gets in the way of commerce”.

The metropolis as a place of menace, where people are seemingly indifferent to danger and death, is evident from the start of the novel, when Ludo has a run in with a boy who is later shot by a security guard.

The women scream. The victim screams. The cars on the flyover continue
to lurch and blare. Just one more frenzied city drama in a thousand, to
be forgotten and absorbed into the oozing traffic, and perhaps mentioned
in passing over lunch. […] When the guard gets out his phone to call
the police, I look at the pink car-park ticket in my hand and realise
there’s nothing more I can do but get to work. I’m late enough as it is.

On the whole, Heliopolis is a fast-paced, often comedic read that delves into thriller territory. It also explores several intriguing themes that provide the book with some intellectual weight — the importance of food within cultures and classes, for instance, and the glaring gap between the rich and the poor.

I found it entertaining and illuminating, and I loved Ludo’s engaging, often smug, occasionally contrite voice. My thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation.

10 thoughts on “‘Heliopolis’ by James Scudamore”

  1. Did you read this novel during your vacation?
    I suppose that it would not be considered an apocalyptic novel since it’s set in the near future and there was no nuclear explosion or some other catastrophe to disrupt society?
    Another to add to my TBR book list. Thanks.
    Happy 2013!


  2. Thanks so much for the review! I loved this book when I read it as part of my “Booker read” back when it made the long list) and couldn’t understand why it seemed to generate so little interest from the reading community. To me, it had everything, or most everything: an interesting and witty narrator, exotic setting and great story combined with polished writing. I immediately put James Scudamore on my “novelists to watch” list and tracked down his debut novel, The Amnesia Clinic (set in Ecuador, rather than Brazil, and centering on the friendship between an expatriate English boy and his more flamboyant Ecuadorian schoolmate). Like many of my projects I haven’t yet, alas, read it, but maybe now….


  3. Hi Isabel, I read this while I was in Brazil in October. And this definitely isn’t an apocalyptic novel — it is set in the present day and very much captures what it is like to live in some of the rougher parts of Brazil (and, I suspect, other BRIC nations). Even visiting Rio I had been warned that mugging/carjacking was rife and even taking a taxi from the airport could be a dangerous exercise.


  4. It is a great story… I think it got quite a bit of attention when it was on the Booker list (I recall reading plenty of reviews on British blogs), but not sure how it was received by mainstream press.
    He’s an interesting writer (he grew up in all kinds of exotic places such as Brazil and Japan), and, like you, I’m intrigued to read more of his work. He has a new novel coming out in July 2013, which will be worth watching out for, I’m sure.


  5. I really enjoyed the settings of this novel: São Paulo and its favelas, the rich private cities. It depicts different layers of a world you can’t meet by just going there on vacation.


  6. It certainly paints an interesting portrait of the city. I was reading it when I was in Brazil and it made me slightly paranoid, probably because I started to see everything with “favela eyes” so to speak. I didn’t go to São Paulo, which is probably just as well. I would have been very scared, I think!


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