By Joshua Madden
James Scudamore’s novel “Heliopolis” was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards that can be given to contemporary literature, but it went relatively unnoticed by many avid readers.
Few people I have spoken with have even heard of Scudamore’s second novel, which is a shame given how well-written the book is.
Set in São Paulo, Brazil, the novel tells the story of Ludo dos Santos, a man who was born in a favela (a slum-like area in Brazilian cities) but raised by a wealthy Brazilian businessman who shelters Santos and his mother.
Scudamore uses this plot to explore the contrast between Brazilian life for the very wealthy businessmen, who control a great deal of the country’s policies, and the lives of poor Brazilian citizens who are simply looking for the next meal.
Wisely choosing not to focus exclusively on this aspect of the novel, it becomes more of an element that operates in the background as Ludo attempts to figure out the meaning of his life.
He struggles with his relationship with his adopted sister, whom he has been in love with since before they were legally siblings. Ludo fights to adapts to a new reality when his love is suddenly taboo.
Scudamore explores the relationship between Ludo and his adopted sister throughout the novel, but he also explores the relationship between Ludo and his mother. His mother, who was born into poverty, comes from a background that Ludo is expected to understand and a heritage he knows almost nothing about.
Ludo’s relationships serve as a way for Scudamore to tie several distinctive themes together in the novel and he does so successfully, artfully weaving together issues of urban poverty and corporate culture in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible.
The book is a terrific view into the life of many Brazilians, but “Heliopolis” is a book that I probably would have never discovered had it not been for a chance encounter at a bookstore.
I am glad I had the opportunity to read it. At just under 300 pages, it’s not too long and would make perfect weekend reading.