‘Esperanza Street’ by Niyati Keni

Esperanza Street book coverThere’s hope for us all in Esperanza Street, a newly-published debut novel full of hope for the future by Niyati Keni which she sets in a port town in the Philippines at the beginning of the Eighties. It tells the story of Joseph from the age of eight to fifteen. His siblings have already left home when his mother dies. Feeling unable to properly care for his son and hold down his work as a stevedore, his father places him as a houseboy with ‘Aunt’ Mary Morelos, another lady down on her luck who runs a boarding house.

Through the acutely observant eyes of the young narrator, we see a vivid and well-described picture of the street life of a rundown district in Puerto Nuevo. The novel has the air of a photograph album of Joseph’s life as he grows up there with short cameo-like chapters on a series of interrelated topics and stories. The quality of the language suggests that Joseph is recollecting his childhood with affection and rare turn of language, as for example in this description of the street in the early morning.

I knew the rhythm of the street by heart. Johnny Five Course would be wedging an umbrella into the boughs of the frangipani tree and leaning back against the trunk, his feet up on the wheels of his food cart. On the corner opposite, Abnor, short for Amos Balignasay Junior, sixty if he was a day, would be flipping up the wooden wings of his tea cart and sliding his stool underneath before stepping into the doorway of Primo’s store to share a cigarette with the man himself, perhaps making his long considered move on the chess board atop Primo’s counter. Half a block along, in the direction of the sea, Cora would be hooking the sunshade down over the chairs in front of the Coffee Shak. At the bottom of the hill, Colon Market would be blossoming into a patchwork of awnings and umbrellas. And down at the jetty, my father and Jonah and the rest of the boys would sit it out under any shelter to be had or, if there was none, would squat on the sea wall, their shirts pulled over their heads and, laughing at each other, turn their faces up to the sky.

Esperanza, one of the oldest streets in Puerto, its heart-beat made up of thousands of small pulses, lulled us all with its apparent constancy. Yet even then, unknown to us, in a bright, air-conditioned office as close to our street as it was distant, a new and remorseless beat was gathering.

The threat to the future of all the varied people who make up the fabric of the street is in the plans for development of the whole area in the official name of progress and the obvious subtitle of profit. Woven through the short chapters with titles like ‘Spanish Colonial Architecture’, ‘Rice and Chocolate’, ‘Stevedores’ ‘Street Barbers’ and many more are the plans of the corrupt developer and the no less corrupt members of the moneyed élite, the older families not lacking in money but often bereft of compassion. ‘Of course, there’ll be losers,’ Judge Robello said, a little impatiently, I thought.

The book is richly populated with fascinating characters and dramatic incidents through which Joseph is both observer and participant. The reader feels that although Esperanza Street, as Joseph knows it is doomed, yet he will go on, perhaps to college in Manila and further afield.

With a name like Niyati Keni and a location in the Philippines, my first thought on looking at this book was that it was another in their excellent series of novels in translation from around the world but this time the publisher, & Other Stories, has sprung a surprise. Keni is in fact a Londoner of Indian parentage who became a qualified doctor and travelled extensively in Asia, including the Philippines, and now lives in West Sussex where she is working on her second novel. I will be looking out for that.

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