Are immigrants dangerous invaders or sainted forebears who selflessly sacrifice their lives for their children’s futures?

The eponymous protagonist of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s bittersweet second novel, “Patsy,” defies these sound bite narratives. Instead, Patsy ventures to America on a visa she plans to overstay in a desperate quest to live and love as she wants to, and in doing so damages the daughter she leaves behind.

“Patsy” is a probing novel about freedom, examining one woman’s shifting conception of it, and how people weigh what they are willing to trade for liberty.

Patsy is a 28-year-old single mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Tru, living in working-class Pennyfield, Jamaica, when her visa comes through. Patsy yearns to join her best friend and sometime lover Cicely in New York after years apart.

Pennyfield stifles and sustains its residents — while the community might help an orphan or widow, it also fiercely maintains its norms through gossip and, at times, violence. While Patsy is growing up, there’s certainly no place for a lesbian.

Patsy leaves Tru with her father, a married policeman, and travels toward Cicely, who has traded the restrictions of Jamaica for those of an abusive marriage.

Patsy sets out with no help or green card, but discovers “in New York City, working off the books is as common as bodegas and dollar stores.” Patsy works as a bathroom attendant, housekeeper and nanny as she struggles for years to keep afloat.

Meanwhile, Tru, traumatized by her mother’s sudden departure, grows up amid Jamaica’s strictly policed gender roles, but finds her calling on the soccer field.

One dramatic question driving “Patsy” is how a mother could leave her child.

It’s not until a jarring encounter years after Patsy’s arrival that she recognizes the childhood trauma that made her unable to fully love her daughter, and she seeks to make amends.

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, featuring some characters that fulfill stereotypes — such as the murderous husband in Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers” and the self-sacrificing mother in Mario Puzo’s “The Fortunate Pilgrim.” “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.

 

Jenny Shank’s novel “The Ringer” won the High Plains Book Award and her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, and McSweeney’s internet Tendency.

Patsy
By: Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Publisher: Liveright, 426 pages, $26.95.