Feast Days by Ian MacKenzie review – the privilege of Americans abroad

A banker’s wife searches for her place in Brazil in this devastatingly truthful take on class, race, marriage and politics

Ian MacKenzie writes about cities with the same verve and vigour as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. Reading his books, it does not seem that he loves cities – rather, that he is compelled by them: their dirtiness, their contrasts, their hidden edges.

Feast Days, his second novel, is set in São Paulo and narrated by Emma, an American whose husband has moved there to make his fortune in banking. She is uncertain what to do. She does not need a job but is restless, finding herself discontented with meeting wives of her husband’s colleagues for drinks or going to overblown children’s parties. She volunteers at a church that is working to help the large number of refugees who have arrived in the country and becomes caught up in the political unrest that is sweeping Brazil.

This is an expansive book tangling big ideas on class and race, marriage and politics. Emma narrates her life in fragments, flipping between expensive restaurants and political marches. MacKenzie has found a narrator who can voice many of the uncomfortable issues of our time: one cannot help but read on.

He is exploring the privilege of the white American abroad, and Feast Days delivers cutting criticism. At an exhibition, Emma stands before paintings of “the heads and bare torsos of seven young black and brown men”. She describes them as “beautiful boys … they had gentle faces, gentle eyes” and later tells us: “As a white woman I was conditioned to see any group of dark-skinned men as a threat.” For the most part, this book rings devastatingly true. Occasionally, however, there is a coldness to the language, an emotional distancing that leaves the reader unable to really care for the characters.

There is also a delight in words that is wonderful to read, a delicious speed to the prose. Feast Days is not a thriller, but reads a little like one, moving swiftly from one kind of experience to the next with brutal, dazzling effect.

Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under is published by Jonathan Cape. Feast Days is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Daisy Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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