Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni

Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni

Article published on February 2, 2015.

Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni – published by And Other Stories on 5th February, 2015

£10 Paperback Original / £5 eBook

Niyati Keni is a physician based in West Sussex and the first debut UK novelist to be chosen for the And Other Stories list. She has travelled extensively within Asia, including in the Phillipines where her debut novel, Esperanza Street, is set – a panoramic novel about a Filipino port community uniting to fight against corruption in the face of inevitable change.

Niyati introduces her novel in the next issue of newbooks magazine, due end of February – subscribe here.

I was eight when my father brought me to one of the big houses at the top of Esperanza Street and left me with Mary Morelos. ‘I haven’t the time to fix broken wings,’ she said. ‘Does he have any trouble with discipline?’ My father glanced at me before answering.

So begins the story of Joseph, houseboy to the once-wealthy Mary Morelos, who lives in the three-storey Spanish colonial house at the top of Esperanza Street. Through Joseph’s eyes we witness the destruction of the community to which they are both bound.

Niyati Keni’s evocative and richly populated debut novel is about criminality under the guise of progress, freedom or the illusion of it, and about how the choices we make are ultimately the real measure of who we are.

What our reviewers say…newbooks_logo

Fifteen-year-old Joseph provides our window onto the world of Esperanza Street, a small community in the Philipines at the beginning of the 1980s. With Joseph, a houseboy, we meet the characters who live and work in Esperanza and the surrounding streets – Johnny Five Course the street vendor, Uncle Bee the medicine man, BabyLu a rich man’s mistress – and share in the sights, sounds and smells. As we follow Joseph we learn that the community is under threat from a local boy made good who plans to develop the whole area and displace the population. Joseph, his friends and family are inevitably drawn into a fight for the lives they know. But although the march of ‘progress’ is the main theme of the book I found its strength lay more in the smaller stories – Joseph’s tentative relationship with his father; the struggle of a pregnant street girl to do better for her child; the families balancing with dignity on the brink of poverty.

The deceptively simple story led me gently along until I was completely immersed in the community of Esperanza Street. I sensed the writer’s great warmth for her characters and it was a warmth I shared. Book Groups would find lots of themes here for their discussions and on a personal level I feel a re-read would reveal further depths to this very beautiful novel.

– Rebecca Kershaw

Skimming through the first few pages of a book is always like meeting a potential new friend for the first time, trying to gauge if we’re compatible, can I trust you?  Niyati Keni’s Joseph sidles up to you like an old friend and although he doesn’t make a physical appearance until page 13, you already feel like you know him. Esperanza Street is a coming-of-age story set in a1960s Philippines seaside town  that centres around a poor jetty boy’s struggle to maintain his integrity  in a convoluted social class system.

The landscape Keni paints for Joseph is exquisite. Keni captures the Spanish influence upon the Philippines with reminiscent sounds and smells that took me back to Colombia, another post-colonial country where I spent last Spring. Esperanza Street starts out with a strong narrative too, as Joseph describes how he became a stubborn and cheeky, young houseboy to a well off widow, Aunt Mary. Even during the period of mourning after a close relative’s death, young Joseph keeps the story alive with comical observations and a dry sense of humour.

However Keni is unable to sustain the confident narrative and after Joseph reaches puberty, the story’s rhythm falls as flat as Joseph’s jokes. The story lacks pace and the plot moves along slowly. Young Joseph is distinctive and likable but as he grows up, performing the same menial duties as when he was a boy, he becomes the object of other people’s lives rather than the subject of his own. He pales in contrast with Aunt Mary’s bold, resolute character. At times it is uncomfortable to ‘watch’ him dither as other characters act decisively in the face of social and economic upheaval.

Esperanza Street has a dreamy, “Sunday afternoon” feel about it and would make a good long weekend or holiday read. But the longwinded pace make parts of the book an endurance test and it wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. Joseph’s defining, self-sacrificing decision that brings the tale to a close didn’t seem worth the pay-off and left me feeling empty. It is a gorgeous portrait of this beach town and the lives of its people but  busy readers may struggle to finish the book.

– Jenna Hutber

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