Patsy: Two Generations of Lesbian Stories in One Epic Book

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Second books can often be disappointing – especially after a successful debut. Here Comes the Sun was met with near-universal acclaim, which set the bar high for Nicole Dennis-Benn’s next novel. But with Patsy Dennis-Benn defies second book syndrome, telling a profoundly moving story of loss, identity, and redemption which cements her status as a truly outstanding author.

Patsy is a young woman who finds her dead-end job and life as a single mother unfulfilling. She dreams of bigger, better things – the opportunity to live up to the potential that was robbed from her by a mixture of male violence and colorism. What little free time Patsy can find is spent yearning for Celie, her closest friend and secret lover, who moved to the United States.

So when Patsy’s visa is finally granted, she doesn’t hesitate to fly away in pursuit of her very own slice of the American Dream. She leaves her young daughter Tru behind and doesn’t look back.

But life in America isn’t what Patsy expected. It’s not the land of plenty – unless you have pale skin and the right papers. And Celie, who invited Patsy to come and build a life with her, is too deeply invested in her marriage and motherhood to explore the possibilities of their romance. Without her lover and child as reference points, Patsy must work out who she is and what she wants. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, her daughter Tru goes through a similar struggle.

From an early age, Tru shows promise as a football player. She spends her time with a group of boys, often passing herself off as one of them to find a freedom that is rarely granted to girls. Whenever possible, Tru rejects the confines of femininity – whether it’s restrictive clothing or domestic chores. Her father is relieved when a teenaged Tru tells him she doesn’t have time for boys. What he doesn’t realize is that another girl makes Tru’s heart beat faster.

Patsy is an incredible book – and not simply because it tells two gripping Black lesbian stories. It is ambitious in scope, spanning continents, decades, and generations. As in life, the past is never far from the present, shaping how characters are positioned in the world surrounding them.

Even outside of Pennyfield, a community in which “Jesus is the only viable excuse a young woman can use to deny the penis”, Patsy and Celie both find it difficult to shrug off the weight of heterosexual expectations. And Tru, whose young life is largely defined by the absence of her mother, ends up being like Patsy in ways she could never have anticipated – a free-spirited young woman who throws off convention to chase her dreams.

What makes Patsy such an engaging book is our flawed heroine.

As a number of critics have pointed out, the most visible anti-heroines tend to be posh and white – just think of Fleabag, or Marianne from Sally Rooney’s Normal People. So it is refreshing to see a Black woman who lives an unconventional life presented in a sympathetic light. Just as she did with her debut novel, Dennis-Benn presents us with complex female characters. And she gives us enough context to see that their most challenging decisions were made from a small pool of unappealing choices.

Although we witness first-hand the trauma Patsy inflicted upon Tru by leaving her, as the plot progresses it is impossible not to empathize. We learn that during her youth, Patsy went through two unwanted pregnancies. Her mother’s devotion to Jesus Christ removed any other option. When we first meet her, Patsy is quite simply not ready to be a mother. This taboo is broken with a tenderness that enables Dennis-Benn to give voice to a reality that is often denied.

From start to finish Patsy is a politically charged novel, but it is never preachy.

Dennis-Benn deftly handles themes of migration, homophobia, and the hollowness of the American Dream, weaving them into her character-driven saga. At points the story is bleak – for years Patsy is overworked, underpaid, and alone. And although she finds a home with them, Tru is often an outsider within her father’s family; a cuckoo in the nest. Bombshells about sexual abuse are dropped with a casualness that serves to remind us that, for many, male violence is an everyday reality.

Yet Patsy is a novel filled with hope, even when it’s misplaced. Their belief in a better future is what sustains Patsy and Tru – and, ultimately, what allows them to reconcile.