If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery: Booker Prize Short List book review

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

Overview: Escoffery tells the story of the various branches of one Jamaican immigrant family in Miami. Over a series of either short stories or parts of a novel depending on how you want to look at the various sections, the reader follows this family from a variety of perspectives from the time the children are born until they're grown adults. The book isn't always entirely linear and sometimes traipses through time as well as through parts of the family. Though the younger son, Trelawny, feels like the undeniable main character, we get to see the points of view of his father, Topper, as well as his cousin Cukie. While this is a truly expansive story through time and experience for only 260 pages, it is also an extremely intimate portrait of a handful of people and how they undeniably set the tone for each other's lives. Overall: 5

Characters: 5 Trelawny stands out to me as the central character this book revolves around. Maybe it's because we meet him first, or maybe it's because stories from his point of view take up most of the book. Regardless, I came to really deeply care for Trelawny. He's always stuck on the outside through no fault of his own. He's the second child, and by default, the leftover in his father's eyes. Being Jamaican and being told, in America, that he's sometimes Black and sometimes not Black enough has left Trelawny lost and confused about his identity. After enough years of being mistreated by the world around him, it hardens his approach to life, even as he still retains an endearing inner softness, that causes him to make impulsive choices that sabotage his attempts to get back up. He's incredibly introspective and spends a lot of time thinking about his situation, what he's been through, and how to fix it. 

His parents, Topper and Sanya, try their best to do what's right for their kids, but they often struggle as their own marriage deteriorates and they navigate a new country. Topper is tough and often seems cold to Trewlany. We get to read a story through his point of view, and his actions towards his children, though not right, become more understandable given his life experiences. Sanya isn't given as much of a spotlight, but as her kids grew into independent adults, I did have to respect her character arc of finally being able to make choices solely based on what she wanted after so many decades of giving. 

Trelawny's older brother, Delano, becomes an incredibly interesting character in the book as well. I was surprised by the twists that his life took, and I liked that we also got a close look into his world. He paints a complex, contrasting picture to Trelawny showing an innate sense of confidence he's gotten from always being the favorite. He has an assurance that no matter what he does, he'll still be the first born, and that will always count more than anything else to Topper. In a way, as we watch the boys grow up, we come to learn that Delano is always set up to win and Trelawny will have to overcome a whole hell of a lot not to lose. 

The last characters that factor into the family tree are Cukie, the brothers' cousin, their aunt, and the father that Cukie only comes to know as a teenager. While their inclusion might seem like an odd digression considering that Cukie's story only briefly links together with the brothers, Cukie's dynamic with his father adds an additional sense of layering to the main father-sons relationship in the novel. Cukie is forced to learn that trust, even when you think it's been built over a long time or should in some sense be imbued by your family ties, is a fragile and dangerous thing. He's an interesting foil to Trelawny as they start with a lot in common and have just a few interventions that send them on completely different paths. 

Plot: 5 This is a book very much about life. Somehow, though, Escoffery imbues even the most mundane parts spent at dead end office jobs with a gripping sense. There's a skill in what's revealed and when. The timeline progresses generally forward linearly, but it isn't afraid to dip forward or back depending on what's necessary to either shed light on the piece before or set up what's coming next. Even digressions like following Cukie finally meeting the father who abandoned him play an integral role to the final impression of that book. You can't help but contrast the ending of Cukie's story with Topper's final act on the page for Trelawny. All of the varied, quick snapshots of different parts of life snap into a truly impressive puzzle when it's all said and done. 

Writing: 5 Escoffery is gifted in both big picture writing and in sentence level prose. He perfectly fits together disparate narrators and pieces of life into something that feels more complete than an entirely chronological time. It always feels like he has an intentional hold on the story and how it's being told. But he's also open to experimentation, playing with the boundaries of the novel. 

I maintain that the book reads more like a novel with distinct section than it does like a short story collection by any stretch because of the consistent characters and mostly consistent time progression. Also, these are extremely long stories if they are viewed individually. They do generally have self contained narratives that could theoretically be read alone, but they would not have the same power. I would guess that people sometimes see this as a short story collection because it bounces around not only in which character points of view are used but also in whether the sections are written in first person, second person, or third person. It might feel like Escoffery was getting to have his cake and eat it too not having to choose a single lens to tell the story through, but he justifies this in the text. The point of view gives you more insight into who each narrator is and where they're emotionally at. I thought it was interesting that in a section where Trelawny was being particularly selfish, his usual mode of being written in second person shifts to first person. 

Also, if you need to be further convinced about the skill here, most of this book is successfully written in second person. It was effective and a completely new reading experience that is extremely hard to effectively pull off. 

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Young Jane Young review

My Winter Break TBR

You Have a Friend in 10A review

Death Valley review


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