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If I Survive You 

Jonathan Escoffery

Fourth Estate (2024)

Review by Isabelle Dupuy


The French philosopher Simone Weil famously wrote: ‘At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him.’  Jonathan Escoffery’s first novel If I Survive You is about this expectation and what can stand in its way. 

Trelawny and Delano’s parents, Topper and Sanya, have survived the violence that engulfed Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s by emigrating to Florida. They try to make a home in Miami where: ‘no one is American. You might be a gringo, you might even be Black American, but solidarity under the Stars and Stripes has ended for you.’ As a child, light-skinned Trelawny is asked at school, ‘What are you?’ 

He’s confronted with the same question at home. His father Topper is bewildered by this ‘yankee’-sounding, bookish boy, unlike his island-born first son Delano. Escoffery doesn’t tell any of this, he shows us, we hear it as he deftly switches from Trelawny’s American narrative to his father’s version. Topper’s speech is not just Jamaican in accent, it reveals a mentality; the sorrow and vulnerability of a generation trapped by violence and forced into exile.  

If I Survive You is told through a series of stories about Trelawny and his family. The stories shift in time and perspective but they are all linked by the expectation at the heart of Escoffery’s writing; the search for home, love, belonging, the ‘good’, as Simone Weil puts it. The voices are rich and varied, full of wit and humour, but trauma looms in Sanya and Topper’s lives and distorts their capacity to care for their children.

There is the story of the night when Topper doesn’t come home and Trelawny, because he’s the only one who speaks the English the American police accept, must admit to the officer on the phone that it’s not the first time. There is no story about the family break-up but there is the story of Trelawny going back to stay with Topper after he finishes university. Some of Escoffery’s best writing is about fathers and sons. To be precise, about traumatised fathers; Black men who have survived so barely, they have little or nothing left for their sons. 

Trelawny brings his Jamaican born and raised girlfriend to his father’s party. Zoe constitutes the living proof that Topper and Sanya could have remained in Jamaica and spared Trelawny the pain of his American life. His happiness was thwarted by Topper ‘s meaningless sacrifice. Even Sanya, who at first felt immune from the racial dynamics of America, defining herself and her boys as brown not ‘black-black’, has given up on the United States after all these years. Trelawny announces he’s getting a Jamaican passport and moving there: ‘perhaps in ten, twenty years, America would be a blip in your family history, a bad dream to be forgotten.’ 

The ensuing confrontation between Topper and Trelawny is one of this remarkable novel’s best scenes. Escoffery gives a visceral punch by punch account of the shame and heartbreak the father and the son inflict on each other. The familiarity of this reproach makes these pages all the more powerful.

There is the tale of Trelawny’s cousin Cukie, whose father Ox was good for a time. You can taste the salty water, feel the south Florida sun burn you skin raw. You open your eyes with disbelief at the same time as the young man does. This is the story where the expectation of the ‘good’ must give way. The evidence is overwhelming, evil has been done and yet, and yet. There is a vitality, a drive in Escoffery’s writing to find the ‘good’ that keeps you rooting for his characters even when they get lost. 

Then there is Miami. The city provides not only the backdrop for most of these stories but reflects Trelawny’s struggles. Escoffery describes a fragile city a hurricane peels off the family roof ‘like a can of Campbell soup’ a non-melting pot in spite of the heat, where racism and exploitation thrive as well as hope. After a series of disasters, including Trelawny working for a dodgy council estate in Miami Beach and Delano losing his business and his family, the brothers find themselves at a crossroads. This time, they make the right choice. To let go of their parent’s trauma. Trelawny is finally able to genuinely support Delano’s budding musical career. He finds dignity in his new work. We leave him having a real conversation with a woman. We know something good is happening. If I Survive You is a hopeful and thrilling read and a balm for all of us diasporic folk.