Light that gave the present the texture of the past

ESPERANZA-STEsperanza Street
by Niyati Keni

This is a coming of age tale (yes, another one; I think I’m on a run of them) set in a port town in the Philippines. It follows the lives of those who live and work on Esperanza Street, which runs from the sea, a fairly poor port area, uphill to more affluent homes. Joseph works as a houseboy for Mary Morelos, a widow whose own two sons are close to him in age, so he exists in an uneasy balance between servant and friend. Though his story is filled in through flashbacks, the bulk of the novel is set in the summer of 1981, when irrevocable change comes to Esperanza. It’s also the summer he becomes a go-between for one of the Morelos boys, which may turn out to be a dangerous position.

“Though Bobby Morelos had been dead for years, his presence persisted in the room…In a certain tricky late-afternoon light that gave the present the texture of the past, it almost felt as if he might walk into the room at any moment.”

Unusually for And Other Stories, this book isn’t a translation. The author is British but she has spent time in the Philippines, and this reads as an authentic insider’s view. The setting is gorgeously atmospheric, with detailed descriptions of the streetlife, from the novel’s opening describing the reactions of street vendors to a sudden downpour of rain. Local history is dropped in subtly, enriching the story without adding a burden.

“The sun, long depleted of its vigour, at last drew its uppermost edge down behind the buildings on the opposite side of Esperanza Street, its final glow outlining them thinly against the descending dusk. From the gate, I watched the street turn to velvet and everything became rich, convivial. In a line stretching from the brow of the hill down to the jetty, the lamps came on in clusters, their yellow light seeping through the smoke that layered upwards from the braziers.”

The characters are rich and interesting, the story moving on a personal and a wider scale, and the writing truly beautiful. Joseph is a likeable character, albeit flawed and far from faultless. And it’s a fun read, with a bit of pace lent by some shady goings on. It deals with poverty, class conflict, the inevitability of change, love, family and politics. It’s a genuinely good read.

Published 2015 by And Other Stories.

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