by Ed Siegle
269 pages, Myriad
Review by Pat Black
Invisibles begins in Brighton, but it already has one eye on events in Rio de Janeiro. These two places, linked by all the distance of the ocean, are inextricably entwined in Ed Siegle’s novel of lost people and the gaps they leave in the lives of those who seek them.
We focus first on Joel, a 34-year-old dentist whose English mother took him to Brighton when he was five. Joel’s father is Gilberto, a Brazilian dentist and musician who went missing after being taken prisoner by the military junta ruling the country at the time. He’s believed to be dead... But that being the case, who is the man Joel sees on the evening news during a bus siege in Rio, with the same gap-toothed smile as his dad?
Against the wishes of his mother Jackie and on-off girlfriend Debbie, Joel jets off for Rio, enlisting the help of his friend Liam and his secretary, Eva, in the search his whole life has been building up to.
Joel has the Flamengo shirt and his father’s complexion, but he is still very much the Englishman abroad under the shadow of Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms. A poster he puts up draws the attention of Nelson, a guitar-playing wanderer who owes money and favours everywhere he goes. Nelson’s in a fair bit of debt and looking at a very unpleasant future at the hands of some gangsters if he doesn’t find two thousands reais, and soon. The missing person poster’s promise of a reward seems like a godsend.
At first glance, Nelson appears to be up to no good – taking the naive Joel’s money in return for a wild goose chase. But Nelson’s heart is good, a quality he recognises in the Englishman. It seems there might just be a way through both these unlikely brothers-in-arms’ problems.
It’s a colourful novel, and a determined samba beat runs all the way through the prose as Siegle conjures up images of Rio’s non-stop party atmosphere through memorable musical cues. Songs run through the soul of the missing Gilberto, presented to us in flashback, as well as Joel’s Brazilian guide Nelson – leading us to wonder if the two men may have things in common at a genetic level as well as a spiritual one.
Joel, while being the focus of the narrative, isn’t its sole driver – we spend lots of time with his good-time mother Jackie as she battles to patch up a relationship in Brighton, as well as looking back at her younger self on Ipanema beach, a stunning English girl in a white bikini. And through Nelson’s travails, we gain an insight into his essentially good character. While we might deplore his dishonesty, we understand that he only does it to survive – and for all that, we just can’t help liking the guy.
It’s not simply a merry dash through lovely colourful Rio and does not present the favelas as peopled by cheerful, happy-go-lucky ragamuffins. We see the bloody consequences of corrupt leadership, from the petty gangsters who roam Rio’s streets and bars through to loathsome military leaders who think nothing of throwing people into prison without charge and torturing them for their own selfish reasons.
And perhaps more disturbingly, Siegle doesn’t shy away from the consequences of mythologizing those who no longer play any part in our lives. He shows that no matter how much you may miss an absent father, no matter how towering a figure he might be in your life, he is only as flawed and as human as the rest of us. Looking for a legend in your own lifetime is bound to end in disappointment.
Perhaps we should adopt the motto of the more sanguine Gilberto and Nelson – ate a morte, pe forte!