Image of Heliopolis
Release Date: 
January 28, 2010
Vintage Books
Reviewed by: 

It’s confusing enough to be adopted. To be thrust from abject poverty in one of the poorest favelas in São Paulo into one of the richest families in the country, even more so. Topping it all off by cultivating an achingly slow lifelong romance with your adoptive sister is really beyond the pale.

And thus we find ourselves in Heliopolis’s opening lines: “It’s early, not yet seven A.M., and once again I’m waking up beside my adoptive sister. This has got to stop. She’s a married woman.”

Thus we are thrust unrelentingly into the (to put it mildly) confusing life of Ludwig Aparecido dos Santos aka Ludo, who has been brought up in the shadow of his own salvation for his entire life.

As the story goes, Ludo was the bastard child of an unknown man, born in poverty to a young woman in a slum. When the philanthropic wife of one of the richest men in the country visits his neighborhood on an altruistic mission, she tastes his mother’s simple cooking and is so taken with its flavors that she invites the young women and her baby to move to their enormous country estate to be their weekend cook. Thus Ludo is saved from a certain fate of poverty, drug use, violent crime, perhaps even starvation.

It is his own personal mythology, fed to him like religion from his earliest memories. In a fairy tale, Ludo lives happily ever after, probably finding a way to give back to the communities he escaped from so early in life. But Scudamore is more realistic than that. He realizes that class boundaries are not allowed to dissolve simply because one moves from a favela to a country estate. Especially not when the one being saved is such a symbol—an embodiment of generosity and thus of privilege. So Ludo lives his entire life between worlds: brought up on the tale of his poverty and treated as separate from his adopted father’s children, yet with personal knowledge only of a life of privilege, or, more accurately, the fringes of privilege.

So it’s an interesting conceit Scudamore gives us: that this man works for a marketing firm distilling, inspecting, and catering to the identities and desires of others when his own are so fluid. Even better, Scudamore has Ludo working on marketing his adoptive father’s new chain of supermarkets to the very impoverished people he’s been told he is from, but does not identify with.

Scudamore’s Ludo thus, is understandably a bit of a mess. Hopelessly confused, earnest, and antagonistic just beyond sympathy but well within the bounds of believability, Ludo is forced to confront his personal mythology. The journey is predictably messy, and Scudamore gives us just one too many convenient coincidences to maintain total believability, but overall the raw emotional honesty and sheer beauty of the language propel the book through to its final pages, ending in one of the most true-to-life and utterly beautiful passages one could hope for in a novel.

Scudamore’s main strength is his sheer honesty: reverberating through his prose, plot, and characterizations. And like any honest story, it’s more complicated than the clichés and hero tales.

And though no one wins, Scudamore, like life, allows for his characters to linger on the small and sensual victories of life: those rare moments of sudden peace, or perfectly cooked food, or the fleeting feeling of knowing and understanding someone else in this world. Though those moments may be brief and at times may seem infrequent, Scudamore allows us to believe it’s well worth it.