Saturday, March 25

People Person by Candice Carty-Williams review – Daddy issues | fiction

Cyril Pennington, the roving Jamaican patriarch and shifty center of People Person, Candice Carty-Williams’s follow-up to her bestselling debut Queenie, considers himself “more of a people person than a father”. He has five children with four different women and zips around south London in his gold Jeep, ingratiating himself with everyone but his own aggrieved offspring of him.

Dimple Pennington, the middle child, has a list of Cyril’s contact numbers saved on her phone under “Dad”, “DAD”, “Dad recent”, “Dad THIS ONE”. Cyril is a well-drawn cad, a “master of detachment” who affably deflects any personal responsibility. People Person explores the legacy of emotional damage wreaked upon his five adult children when an unexpected event draws them all together, as Dimple winds up in a dire situation that requires her family’s help and these half-siblings who barely know one another are suddenly made present and vitally instrumental in each other’s lives. The narrative includes crime and subterfuge, uncomfortable sexual situations, and not one but two funerals – yet despite all this, People Person is a breezily enjoyable read that foxes genre; a family comedy in the guise of domestic noir, with a redemptive fairytale journey from alienation to acceptance at its heart.

In Queenie, Carty-Williams was wonderfully effective at portraying the joys and sorrows of Black British femininity. Through the Penningtons, she explores what it means to strive for identity and belonging in a big, broken family – part Indian-Jamaican, part white, part Yoruba – united in heartbreak by a selfish father figure with an unknowable smile always plastered across his face , and one foot always out of the door.

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Dimple, Lizzie, Nikisha, Danny and Prynce have each handled Cyril’s negligible presence in their lives in different, often clashing ways. Dimple is also a “people person”, in a quintessentially modern fashion. A 30-year-old aspiring lifestyle influencer mired in man troubles, she’s accustomed to “lonely, sleepless nights where her only company was digital”, doomscrolling and “looking at all the messages from people telling her either how great she was or how and where she could improve”. Defining herself through a prism of follower counts and male approval, Dimple has no idea who she really is. Meanwhile Lizzie, born three weeks apart from her half-sister, appears to have it all held together as a junior doctor in a loving and stable lesbian relationship, and Nikisha, the eldest, is a pragmatic no-nonsense mother to two children (“ she had very little time for daddy issues, and actually found the term offensive”). Danny is a taciturn gym buff, and Prynce is shaping up to be a jocular ladies’ man, much like her father.

The Pennington siblings chat and bicker and spark off the page, coming into their own distinctive aliveness. By the end of the novel, the reader is sorry to leave them; Nikisha and Danny in particular deserve more airtime. Carty-Williams’s prose is snappy and propulsive, full of busy, telegenic set pieces that dramatize current issues with an enviable lightness of touch. Racial discrimination within the police, toxic relationships and generational trauma are entertainingly explored, and the novel is wittily observant about the objectification of Black men and women: Dimple’s constant monitoring of her social media presence operates as a form of double consciousness built around the performance of a personal brand of idealized and racialized femininity. When Kyron, her nasty ex-boyfriend of hers, ends up in hospital, the nurses compare him to “a young Denzel Washington” or “the one who plays that detective. Always running around in a suit. “Kyron, who looked nothing like a young Denzel Washington, or Idris Elba, blinked his eyes open slowly.”

While People Person contains several madcap plot turns and implausible red herrings, it is anchored in emotional realism and a hopeful warmth. The novel is highly empathic towards its characters’ struggles to accept the indelible failings and traumatic legacies of their childhood and regain agency over who they are and how they want to be. Ultimately, this is a delightful, uplifting and emotionally satisfying novel about building new connections in the face of deep-rooted abandonment wounds and hideous disappointment. The Pennington siblings may never get the paternal love and approval they so crave – but they have each other, and that’s more than enough.

People Person by Candice Carty-Williams is published by Trapeze, (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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