Book Review: ‘If I Survive You’ by Jonathan Escoffery (Shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2023)

A Powerful Exploration of Poverty and Resilience

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Book Title: If I Survive You
Author: Jonathan Escoffery
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Number of Pages: 272
ISBN: 978-0008501228
Date Published: Jan. 1, 2023
Price: INR 370

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery Book Cover

Book Review

If I Survive You” by Jonathan Escoffery is an impressive collection of eight interconnected short stories that provide a deep and poignant exploration of the struggles faced by a Jamaican immigrant family living in Miami, Florida. These stories span several decades, from the 1970s to the 2020s, delving into the complex themes of race, class, culture, identity, belonging, and the relentless pursuit of survival.

Escoffery’s writing is anything but unconventional, resonating with the universal human experience. As I delved into the pages of his book, I naturally envisioned the narrative extending far beyond its initial setting. It was as though I transplanted the story to the streets of India, where the themes of poverty and identity reverberate with striking familiarity. The book adeptly illustrates that the challenges of poverty are a shared human experience that transcends geographical and cultural divides unaffected by variations in GDP or social contexts.

At the heart of the narrative is Trelawny, a young Black man constantly grappling with the question, “What are you?” Trelawny’s search for his place in the world unfolds against discrimination, poverty, violence, and familial complexities. As the only American-born member of his Jamaican immigrant family, he faces an identity crisis that sets him apart, navigating the tension between his school’s insistence on his American-ness and society’s refusal to accept him as such.

This societal obsession with race leaves Trelawny feeling like an outsider despite his diverse heritage. His unique position makes him a perpetual ‘other,’ and this feeling of not belonging pervades his experiences even as he reaches adulthood. Furthermore, his relationship with his father, Topper, and his older brother, Delano, is marked by misunderstanding and disconnection, leading to Trelawny’s eventual expulsion from his home.

Escoffery masterfully tells these stories in a vivid and engaging style, employing various points of view and tenses. Using the second-person perspective creates a sense of intimacy and empathy with the reader, and the inclusion of Jamaican English and Spanish reflects Miami’s diverse linguistic and cultural milieu. The stories are skillfully laced with humor, irony, suspense, and moments of tenderness and tragedy.

Trelawny’s relentless struggle for survival drives him to undertake odd jobs, many bizarre and degrading. These experiences shed light on the harsh realities of life for those living on the fringes of society. Even when he secures a teaching job after obtaining a degree, his financial struggles persist, leaving him unable to take advantage of a golden opportunity offered by his father. In the end, Trelawny’s arduous journey reveals that, for people like him, survival often comes at a grave cost, and the specter of inevitable tragedy looms large.

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Jonathan Escoffery’s debut work is remarkable, showcasing his storytelling prowess and deep understanding of the human condition. He portrays the challenges and joys of the immigrant experience in America with honesty and compassion, celebrating the resilience and determination of his characters. “If I Survive You” is a compelling and emotionally charged collection, bridging the gap between short stories and a novel with its seamless narrative. Escoffery’s direct and unflinching approach makes this book a powerful exploration of poverty and the indomitable spirit of those who persevere in adversity.

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