Nicole Dennis-Benn carefully unspools the stories behind each wound over the long course of this richly imagined novel, her second; their provenances emerge gradually, piece by piece, the way a person’s story of trauma emerges only with time and trust. Without giving those stories away, I’ll simply say that this subtle motif beautifully illustrates how the characters are connected to one another by love, desire and violence, and how they bear those histories permanently, both within and on their bodies. One of the novel’s finest achievements is how vividly and insistently the body shapes not just character but plot ... this is a story of self-made queer survival, with ample pleasure alongside the pain and sacrifice, and of severing familial ties in order to save one’s own life, no matter the cost ... Patsy weaves confidently through the characters’ physical and social worlds, but when it comes to Patsy’s emotional interiority, the prose occasionally goes overboard in conveying the potency of her feelings; these descriptions can feel excessive in scenes whose high stakes Dennis-Benn otherwise crafts so nimbly. This is a minor gripe for a novel that continually and subtly defies predictability as it tells a vital and remarkable life story ... Again and again, Patsy surprises and illuminates.
Admirers of Here Comes the Sun have waited three years for Dennis-Benn's followup, and anyone who was enchanted by her gorgeous writing are in for a happy surprise: Patsy isn't just as good as its predecessor, it's somehow even better ... Dennis-Benn packs a great deal of emotional power into Patsy, and does so successfully because she's not afraid to confront truths that many other authors might shy away from. There are plenty of novels that celebrate the mother-daughter bond, but not as many that delve into its absence ... Dennis-Benn portrays Patsy beautifully, with real compassion and no judgment ... also looks unflinchingly at the experience of undocumented immigrants in America, who are forced to deal with racism and poverty in the land they've always dreamed about ... benefits from Dennis-Benn's gorgeous writing — she has a strong narrative voice and a real gift for dialogue ... Dennis-Benn isn't just a compassionate writer, she's also a courageous one, unafraid to address topics that too often go ignored. And in Patsy and Tru, she's managed to create two unforgettable characters who function as real people and not literary archetypes. Dennis-Benn is quickly becoming an indispensable novelist, and Patsy is a brave, brilliant triumph of a book.
Dennis-Benn, in her novels, is unsparing in her scrutiny of love and the sacrifices—not the gauzy and selfless kind—that it can demand ... Yet for all the bleak determinism and brutality in Dennis-Benn’s fictional worlds, what stands out in Patsy is yearning—for opportunity, for pleasure, for connection, almost exclusively among women. That yearning, coexisting as it does within the cold-eyed realism of its setting, helps Dennis-Benn’s second novel strike a solemn balance between entrapment and escape ... Patsy is a portrait of black queer women grasping for self-determination, and a challenge to the conventions of what is expected of good mothers and good women and good immigrants. Tru’s inheritance from Patsy isn’t years of doting or gifts from America, but instead the permission to thrive in a society that will always threaten to crush her will and desire. In writing beautifully about that unending struggle, Dennis-Benn finds a way to extend to black girls and women some of the love that the world may never offer.
... methodically and unapologetically engages with choices women do and should be allowed to make, and as with her last novel, Here Comes the Sun, does so with nuance and grace ... Dennis-Benn explores themes of gender, sexuality, motherhood and freedom, as well as colorism and classism and the ways the two intertwine both in Jamaica and here in the United States. But none of this feels didactic or moralistic so much as integral to the characters’ lived experiences and seamlessly woven through their emotional arcs ... a deeply queer, sensitive and vividly written novel about a woman’s right to want and a child’s right to carve her own path.
...stunning ... Though set in the past, the story and its reflections on borders and boundaries carry an urgent timeliness ... There have been few narrative epics that effectively tally the emotional, logistical, physical, psychological and financial trials of the black female immigrant and mother or, likewise, the impact on the family of a black woman who dares transform herself. Dennis-Benn maps the internal terrain of black women yearning to be free — without romanticizing or ignoring their flaws ... Patsy fills a literary void with compassion, complexity and tenderness.
Dennis-Benn’s vivid, sensory writing plunges the reader into the experience of an undocumented immigrant in the wilds of New York, teeming with unreliable buses, rude citizens and mattresses of unknown provenance. Dennis-Benn also evokes Patsy’s home island through every sense, capturing its cadence with her fresh, phonetic rendering of Jamaican patois and displaying its hibiscus flowers, macka (thorn) bushes, cow foot soup and private school girls in pristine white uniforms ... The immigrant novel has a rich tradition in American literature ... Patsy adds to that lineage with its engrossing portrait of a complicated woman who struggles against crushing societal forces in her quest—not to sacrifice her life for future generations—but to finally unfurl her true self.
The pace sometimes flags, but this moving work about the immigrant experience is distinguished by Dennis-Benn’s compassion for her characters and her acknowledgment that issues related to sexuality and immigration require subtlety and understanding.
Dennis-Benn strives for an authentic portrayal, giving Patsy a distinct voice and emotionality ... Patsy, despite her struggles, can be difficult to empathize with, perhaps in part because of her seemingly careless abandonment of Tru ... Patsy’s not the only character in the book whose behavior pushes the boundaries of sympathy. Most, if not all, of the women in Patsy are forced up against their limits ... Though Patsy gets off to slow start and loses momentum towards its finish, the bulk of the novel is compelling. As Patsy’s story unfolds, it gains poignancy, finding a steadiness of heart ... Dennis-Benn has an eye for detail and ear for dialogue, and she does not shy away from confronting the brutal reality that immigrants face in a place like New York City.
Dennis-Benn...writes about the immigrant experience with abiding, bone-deep empathy—swinging between standard English and patois the same way that Patsy and her daughter navigate their own need to code-switch as the years pass. Estranged from one another and bound to a world that tends to treat black womanhood and queer sexuality as invisible at best, their separate but intertwined stories wend through hurt and hope and inalienable dreams; not just for a better life, but a truly honest one.
Dennis-Benn contrasts the deep chasm between the American dream and immigrant reality, and the result is magnetic and wrenching ... A mother who abandons her child is a monster in most cultures, but Dennis-Benn’s deep compassion for Patsy — for all women facing unthinkable choices — forces you to reconsider your own preconceptions. She urges you to think about this woman’s desperation, her fear, her past, her yearning for connection ... told from both points of view, mother and daughter, the voices raw, honest and haunting.
Dennis-Benn builds big worlds inside and outside of her touchable characters, writing through their knotty love in all its failures and mercies in this empathic intergenerational epic of womanhood and inheritance.
Although she's lovingly drawn by Dennis-Benn, Patsy has done the single most-damning thing a mother can do in our society: She has abandoned her child. It's a marker of Dennis-Benn’s masterful prowess at characterization and her elegant, nuanced writing that the people here—even when they're flawed or unlikable—inspire sympathy and respect. Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race, and immigration that speaks to the contemporary moment through the figure of a woman alive with passion and regret.
Patsy’s ambivalence about motherhood transforms this otherwise familiar immigrant narrative into an immersive study in unintended consequences, where even the push Patsy’s new girlfriend gives her to try and make amends, by sending a gift to Tru, leads to disaster. Out of that debacle, though, a chance for rapprochement appears, one that sets the stage for Tru to turn her athletic talent into the kind of life her mother is still grasping at. This is a marvelous novel.