Flesh and Bone and Water opens with a letter to André from Luana. She says it has been many years since they’ve been in touch and that André made ‘us wait’. Who is Luana? What happened between her and André? How did André make her wait?
This opening puzzle is what drives the novel, allowing the reader to intuit answers well before André whose blindness to events is painfully self-willed.
We know that André left Brazil, married an English woman and had two daughters. He became a doctor in London. The very thought of Luana drives a wedge between him and his wife. He spends more and more time thinking of the past, of the Brazil he left all those years ago.
I’m not going to spoil the plot, but I am going to tell you that Flesh and Bone and Water is a novel about the lasting impact of early adulthood. What we do in our intense and hormone-driven youth often influences our future in ways we are unable to predict. Looking back, that nostalgic and unending quest to understand the past, to unravel a point of origin, is what drives this very enticing novel.
In part I revelled in the journey to Brazil, but it is also the writing itself that gives off an equatorial humidity. The water of the title finds itself reflected in that humidity, in the grand rivers of the Amazon, the less grand Thames and the beaches of the east coast, but also in sweat and tears, in the very cells of our bodies. The way water runs over skin, the way memory can immerse the senses in a kind of floating dream that obscures the present, fills André’s quest to know himself better with the metaphors of tributaries and rivers and seas. This makes for a rich symbolic backdrop to the events of the novel without even mentioning the history of colonisation and privilege that ride roughshod over the lives of the characters and enter André into a narrative of denial that enforces his youthful blindness and ultimately brings him loss.
It’s easy to eagerly turn the pages of Flesh and Bone and Water seeking the answers alongside André, but it is also a contemplative novel, one that wades slowly through the humid air of the mind to uncover the lies beneath the calm surface of social propriety.