Flesh and Bone and Water
By Luiza Sauma
André Cabral left Brazil when he was a teenager and hasn't looked back since. Then out of the blue a letter arrives from an old friend and begins to consume his every waking moment.
Before long all he can think about are memories of his youth,hanging out on the beech with friends, partying into the night and his obsession with their maid's daughter; Luana.
I was sent the recommendation for this book via email from a publisher because I liked Three Daughters of Eve so much. I already had a lot of books on my to-read list but I am so pleased I chose to read this.
André Cabral is a Brazilian doctor living in London with his wife Esther and his two kids. His practice is busy, and although he gets annoyed with all the hypochondria he encounters, he generally is content.
That all changes when he receives a letter one day from back home in Brazil. The book begins with this letter from someone called Luana. He hasn’t seen Luana in about 30 years but memories of their time together floods back as if it was yesterday. Luana states that she has his email but she wanted to write to him because email is too instant. Immediately I wondered who Luana was and what made her want to write rather than having the instant contact email provides.
Luiza Sauma’s writing brings Brazil to life, especially when Luana writes that she has never been to Europe but she can’t complain when she thinks about where she lives. A place where you
can smell the jungle wherever you go and the children
grow up wild, like Indians.
Luana talks of how Brazil
seduces foreigners and
drives them wild but they never get to see the real Brazil. Brazil is somewhere I have never really thought of traveling to but after reading this book I have a real desire to go there.
André can hardly stop thinking about the letter. His work and home life begin to suffer and before long he is separated from his wife and struggling to focus on his patients. The little we initially know of why he left Brazil is intriguing,
I tried not to linger on my memories of Luana, of what happened between us. When I met Esther, I locked those memories away at the back of my mind.
His mother died in a road traffic accident shortly before his 17th birthday and André reflects that if she was still alive then the subsequent events would never have occurred. He believes it is likely he would be living in his old family apartment in Rio de Janeiro with a Brazilian wife and his children. Instead of living alone in London apart from his English wife and his children Hannah and Beatriz, the latter named after his deceased mother.
The bulk of the book focuses on a time around six months after his mother died in the mid 80’s. André, his brother Thiago and their dad are struggling to relate to each other in their grief.
Everything was subsequent to that. The dictatorship ended that year, but I don’t remember how I felt about it. Mamae was dead. What more was there to feel?
There was clearly a whole in their life without their mother and the family dynamics had changed. This hole was partially filled by their Empregada Rita and her daughter Luana. They cooked and cleaned the apartment and Rita looked after the boys whilst their father was working in his plastic surgery practice.
For me, the practice of having empregadas is wholly alien and served to emphasise the gap between the rich and the poor in Brazil. André and his family, as well as most of his friends, have empregadas catering to their needs. In other areas there the author mentions slums and people begging on the streets. Not to mention the fact that Luana had to drop out of school to work with her mother.
André and Luana’s relationship serves to emphasise the inequalities that exist for empregadas in their society. They exist in the background and can be a part of the family without ever really belonging. This point is illustrated by André knowing so little about Luana and Rita. He doesn’t know her surname, what happened to her father or how she feels about having to drop out of school. A barrier exists between them, one that prevents him from offering her some of his food to try and various other things.
When André initially began to notice Luana the notion that he might have feelings for an empregada is ridiculous to him because they exist in two different worlds. Despite his growing feelings for Luana he continues to flirt and sleep with a rich young girl from his group of friends named Daniela. This continues on long after he and Luana begin to develop something between them.
André’s actions towards Luana frequently made me angry, particularly because her unequal position in the relationship and in life in general meant she had very few options to remove herself from the situation.
In the present Luana’s letters are full of anger, anger directed at André for not contacting her. André in turn feels anger towards his estranged, and now deceased, father. He is angry about the secrets he kept from him and for the rift between him which caused him to flee his homeland and caused irreparable damage to their already fractious relationship.
This book slowly builds to an epic climax which has stayed with me days after finishing it. A beautiful and sorrowful read.
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