“Although he was unconsciously a master of detachment,” writes Carty-Williams on the opening pages, “Cyril saw himself more as a people person than a father.” Although Cyril’s sociable personality earns him points with the postman, it does nothing for his relationship with his five children, who remain estranged from both their father and each other as they grow up in the diverse neighborhoods of south London – Brixton, Battersea and Clapham, among others. them.
In the second chapter, “People Person” jumps forward to the maturity of the Pennington siblings. Dimple, now a 30-year-old wannabe YouTube influencer, is trying (this time permanently, she swears) to breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, Kyron. When their exchange turns violent and Kyron ends up unconscious on Dimple’s kitchen floor, she enlists her four estranged siblings to cover up the incident and protect her from Kyron’s wrath when he wakes up and realizes what has happened.
As the Kyron incident brings them together, the Pennington siblings really bond with their lingering desire to win their father’s affections, who makes the occasional cameo in their adult lives. Cyril is absent at best and negligent at worst, but his children seem unable to distance themselves, often belittling their mother’s love in the process. Appropriately, “People Person” is dedicated “to all single mothers. Especially those who try their best to raise their children with the love of two parents.”
The novel pays tribute to the vibrancy of South London’s black community and features a number of protagonists who bear witness to the city’s cosmopolitanism and the spectrum of black identity. In addition to sharing a black Jamaican bus driver, Nikisha and Prynce are the children of a black Jamaican mother; Lizzie’s mother is Yoruba; Dimple’s is Indian Jamaican; and Danny’s is “a friendly and more than accommodating little white woman with a dark blond bob.”
The dynamics of the siblings reflect the politics of ethnicity, colorism and white beauty standards: Danny’s “mixed” facial features are often mocked by his siblings, while Nikisha, the eldest, envies Dimple for getting special treatment from Cyril because “her mother is one of them.” who looks like Indian women” and has “good hair”. To compensate, Nikisha jokes about Dimple’s weight – one of the many insecurities of the middle Pennington child. The array of black identities, personalities and body types that Carty-Williams portrays, is refreshing and honest, in contrast to hackneyed media images that present Blackness as a monolith.
A novel for the digital age, “People Person” seamlessly weaves technology into its roving plot. Carty-Williams describes the characters’ intentional interaction with cell phones and social media, for better or worse, in detail: Dimple doesn’t just turn off her phone; instead, “she turned off airplane mode and wiped all the millions of notifications from Kyron as soon as they came in.” Her involvement with electronics is tactile rather than passive, and her preoccupations with emoji — modern emotional channels — are recognizable to younger readers: When Dimple ranks her favorite emoji, she decides that “of course fire was best.” Hart eyes followed, but she didn’t like them very much. Her least favorite was the crying emoji.”
And when Dimple’s phone buzzes, she doesn’t have to look: she just listens “to see if it was a single buzz (WhatsApp, Insta, or Twitter notification), two buzzes (iMessage), or persistent buzz (phone call)”, afraid of the latter option, in true millennial fashion. A passing reference to TikTok’s psychoanalysis makes the novel relevant to the pandemic era, though references to the coronavirus pandemic itself are missing, perhaps intentionally, to give “People Person” an escapist feel.
Moments of laughing out loud prose punctuate the novel, including a description of Dimple’s inquisitive white neighbor, Karen, who, true to her name, suspects Dimple and her siblings of illegal activity, based solely on their Blackness. Carty Williams deftly tackles anti-black racism and micro-aggressions, while using the power of comedy to get her point home.
But sometimes the writing feels extraordinarily casual, with the cadence of a text exchange rather than a work of literary fiction. At such times, Carty-Williams leans on exposition over sensory description. Readers learn about Cyril’s golden jeep, which he bought with “most if not all of the money he should have spent on child support, or even lived a little more comfortably.” Carty-Williams adds, “He really loved it more than anything in his life and he didn’t see a problem with that.” Such instances are missed opportunities to vividly portray the scene and telegraph Cyril’s affection for his car, not through explanation but through suggestive description.
The ambition behind Carty-Williams’ novel is reminiscent of what Zadie Smith brought in her first novel:White teeth.” And to some extent, Carty-Williams is to south London what Smith is to the north: a sharp, humorous voice that paints larger London black communities with the nuance they deserve. Carty-Williams even credits Smith as one of her mentors in the book’s acknowledgments.
But Smith’s ability to string together a series of disparate events is less assured in the novel by Carty-Williams, who spends too much time expounding it. And small tangents, like a lengthy explanation of Danny’s jail term, distract from Carty-Williams’ ultimate message about the importance of family.
Nevertheless, through her nuanced portrayal of the Pennington siblings, Carty-Williams deftly grapples with the unique challenges they face as black Londoners. Among them are overcoming the conventions of white beauty, resisting the looming threat of police unjust treatment, and learning to love themselves as they are—with or without Cyril’s coveted affection.
Meena Venkataramanan writes stories and anchors the About the US Newsletter at The Washington Post.
By Candice Carty-Williams
Gallery/Scout Press. 336 pp. $27.99
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