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Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni.

December 16, 2014

Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni.   And Other Stories (2015), Paperback, 320 pages.

A coming of age novel about a boy in a seaside town in the Philippines threatened with new developments.

Esperanza Street is a street in a small town in the Philippines. It runs from the big houses on the hill down to the jetty where poor people live and work. The central character of the novel is Joseph, a teenager from a family near the jetty who becomes a houseboy for a widow who runs a boardinghouse up on the hill. She has two sons, one Joseph’s age and the other older, and Joseph gets involved in both their problems. At the same time, a distrusted land speculator is planning to build a massive new development of malls and other buildings that will require the destruction of the homes of many poor residents. For Joseph, as for his father before him, coming of age is less about love or adventure than about resignation and the acceptance of duty.

Niyati Keni was born in London, the child of parents who had migrated there from India. A physician as well as a writer, she has traveled widely in Asia, including in the Philippines. This is her first novel; a good book but not an excellent one. Keni is best at describing the people up and down Esperanza Street whom Joseph encounters.  I had trouble relating to the characters, however, and sometimes found their choices implausible. The rhythm and the plot of the book seemed awkward with suspense building but not being resolved.  I also found the book depressing.  It lacked the lyrical beauty that balanced the pain in Claire of the Sea Light , a similar book by Ewidge Danticat about a town in Haiti.

Esperanza Street was published by And Other Stories, an innovative British publishing company that includes direct, advance subscriptions in its business model.  Many of their publications are translations from a variety of languages.  See their website for information about them.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2014 2:02 pm

    Love the cover. Sounds like an interesting book.

  2. aartichapati permalink
    December 16, 2014 2:42 pm

    Whew, awkward and depressing? I think I will have to pass. Agree with Claire that the cover is lovely!

  3. neddle25 permalink
    January 26, 2015 8:24 am

    I definitely do not agree with the book being awkward and depressing. Do you remember being a teenager and everything in life being some variation of awkward or depressing? That’s what Joseph and co. illustrate. For me, the whole point of the book was that life is all about choices – both the ones you make and the ones you lack control over. I have spent a lot of time in Asia, so maybe I’m being nostalgic, but I found the atmosphere of the book spot on. Overall, very impressive as a debut novel.

    • January 26, 2015 9:20 am

      Thanks. I can only respond to any book as one reader with my own likes and dislikes. I love it when people like and affirm a book more than I did.

  4. farmlanebooks permalink
    February 26, 2015 1:34 pm

    I have just finished reading this and agree with you. I found the beginning really good and thought the scenes around his mother’s funeral were well done, but the rest of it was disappointing. It lacked atmosphere and I couldn’t picture the area at all. It is interesting to learn that the author isn’t from this country. I think that is the cause for some of the distance /lack of passion.

    • February 26, 2015 6:25 pm

      Thanks. I agree. It is possible, but unlikely that a person not from a place can write well about it. At the very least, they seem to writte with more distance. But some do it well, like Drusilla Modjeska does in The Mountain.

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