Luiza Sauma’s debut novel is set in London and her native Brazil exploring memory, love and loss. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Memory has a peculiar potency. Revisiting the past can be comforting and nostalgic but it can also bring to the surface difficult thoughts and feelings that have long been buried.
This is the subject of a stunning debut novel Flesh and Bone and Water from Brazilian-born, London-raised author Luiza Sauma. The story focusses on fortysomething doctor Andre Cabral, born in Brazil and now living in London, a father of two and recently separated from his English wife. One day he receives a letter from the country he left nearly thirty years ago which prompts him to reminisce about the days of his youth – endless lazy days on Ipanema beach, elegant parties in the swanky apartments of Rio’s well-heeled middle class.
Andre’s memories are not all happy ones, however – his beloved mother was killed in a car accident when he was just 17, he has a complicated relationship with his surgeon father and then there is the anguish of his secret obsession with Luana the luminously beautiful teenage daughter of his family’s live-in maid.
The novel is a sensitive, sensuous, achingly poignant and beautifully observed exploration of both adolescence and midlife crisis – and is entirely written in the first person, from a male perspective. Andre’s voice comes across as completely authentic throughout but Sauma, who studied English at the University of Leeds in the early 2000s, admits that writing the book from his point of view wasn’t easy. “It was really challenging,” she says. “I didn’t set out to write a novel from a man’s perspective but it felt right for this particular story. I can’t really say exactly how I did it but I thought about the teenage boys I had known growing up in London and Brazil and the different situations I had found myself in with them and tried to see how they viewed women and how they might have perceived their own burgeoning sexuality. Then I spent time thinking about all the men in their forties I have met, some of whom seem to be weighed down by this sense of disappointment with their lives. It was really just a process of writing and rewriting until it felt real.”
Born in Rio de Janiero, Sauma moved to London with her family when she was four years old but continued to regularly visit Brazil while she was growing up. It is a place that holds a very special place in her heart – and her descriptions of it are arresting and tangible. The reader is transported to a vibrant, colourful, joyful place .
“Even though I was really young when I left, I remember the feeling of living in Brazil,” she says. “People are quite surprised by how much I can remember. There is, for me, something quite magical about the landscape in Rio – the jungle, the mountains, the ocean – and around the time that I started writing the novel I had been having quite vivid recurring dreams about Rio, like Andre does in the book. I think it was my way of coming to terms with the loss of that country and knowing that I will probably never live there again but I feel so deeply for it. And I purposefully wanted it to be very vivid in contrast to London.”
While communicating the natural beauty and energy of Rio, Sauma does not, however, shy away from addressing the racial divisions and social injustices within the very rigid class system of Brazilian society at the time of Andre’s youth in the 1980s.
“Like all stories, for me anyway, it came to me in quite an unconscious way,” she says. “But there were things about Brazil and the class system and the maid-employer dynamic that I was really interested in exploring in fiction. I guess the novel is a jumble of stories I have heard over the years.
“The first thing I thought of was about a wealthy young Brazilian boy who falls in love with his maid. It is something that happens a lot in Brazil – many rich young men will lose their virginity to a maid – but I guess it also came from my own background of being born in Brazil and raised in London, having grown up between those two very different cultures.”
In the book Andre embarks upon a journey back to his homeland to try and rediscover the past and put to rest emotions that have been stirred up by the letter he receives. It eventually leads him to a shocking discovery that forces him to reassess his whole life. Sauma witholds this quietly devastating revelation with extraordinary delicacy and skill delivering her story in an elegant and evocative yet pared-back and direct style which points to both her past career as a journalist and her previous success as a short story writer.
Making the move to the novel form was a long-held ambition. “I had written short stories since my teens, but I always thought I eventually wanted to write a novel,” she says. “It was just that I hadn’t found the right idea yet.” Flesh and Bone and Water actually began its life as a short story but after showing it to a few people, who suggested that it might work as a novel, Sauma began to extend it. It took her three years “on and off” to complete and she is now working on her second book, with the first draft already finished. “The novel form allows you to be more expansive and go off in different directions which I think suits me better.” Now in her mid-thirties, Sauma says that she sometimes wonders whether she should have “got going in my twenties” but feels that in fact her timing turned out to be perfect.
“I couldn’t have written this book then – so much of it is about looking back on your youth with nostalgia. And my adolescence does feel quite far away now...”
Flesh and Bone and Water is published by Viking, £12.99.
Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1982 and raised in London. After graduating in 2004 from the University of Leeds where she studied English, she worked at the Independent on Sunday’s arts desk for several years. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Award in 2014. She has also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Flesh and Bone and Water is out in the UK now and will be published later this year in the USA and Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden.