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Shelf Awareness: "So satisfying as pure storytelling that you throw your doubts out the helicopter window, buy into the author's literary zest, and enjoy the tale."

Date: Nov 15 2010

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Reviewed by Nick DiMartino for Shelf Awareness


Booker-nominated Heliopolis is a ravishing, sprawling Dickensian love story between a boy from the poverty-stricken favelas and a girl whose father transports his family to their weekend estate in a private helicopter. Super-rich collides with super-poor in James Scudamore's banquet of a book, and his meticulously elaborate plot unfolds in São Paulo, a city with more than 200 heliports, where the rich swarm the skies to avoid being kidnapped off the streets.

 

The handsome young hero, Ludo, has had his life changed at the age of one, when wealthy dona Rebecca dares to enter the favela, finds an excellent cook struggling to survive with her baby, and takes them away to a new life. At least that's what we're told.

 

While dona Rebecca entertains charity donors and church officials, she reserves her maternal warmth for the unfortunate children of the favelas while treating her own daughter, Melissa, coldly. Not Ludo. He falls in love with his adoptive sister, and remains so even when she marries his best friend.

James Scudamore brings São Paulo to life as only someone who has lived there can do, weaving his story from the advertising offices of the MaxiMarket grocery chain to the favela of the notorious gang known as the Shadow Command, with a cast of characters from every level of society, from the fabulously wealthy owner of the chain to the woman who cleans the office toilets. Now and then a nervous security guard with an itchy trigger finger is thrown in.

 

The plot threads all collide at the end in an extravagant, Fellini-like celebration attended by all the main characters, a party that erupts into a violent night of destruction and revelation, with gunfire and people dancing on car roofs.

 

With every chapter named after a tasty Brazilian dish, Heliopolis is like the Brazilian national favorite, feijoada, a succulent bean stew into which are thrown bits of all the meats in the house, so that every exotic bite is different.

 

The mythic story itself is a Brazilian take on Great Expectations--Ludo is plucked out of poverty by a benefactor, but he hasn't been told the whole story, and his father remains a mystery. All the characters around him hold bits of his puzzle, and he'll risk his life to find out the truth. Half a dozen whopping coincidences explode like well-orchestrated fireworks throughout the narrative, and they're so satisfying as pure storytelling that you throw your doubts out the helicopter window, buy into the author's literary zest, and enjoy the tale.--Nick DiMartino

 

Shelf Talker: Booker-nominated Heliopolis is a ravishing, sprawling Dickensian love story where super-rich collide with super-poor in a banquet of a book.