I had the opportunity to hear Dodici Azpadu read from her third novel, Living Room, at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival last week in New Orleans. She’s an excellent reader, and I was glad to have her expressive voice in my head while I read her book on the journey back home to Toronto.
Living Room is a story about Carmen Khalise, an Arab-Italian-American woman in her sixties returning to Brooklyn for her mother’s four-day wake and funeral. She has to deal with her estranged family, both those who wish to protect and love her, as well as those who misunderstand and resent her. Adding complication is the unexpected appearance of a past lover with a secret she urgently wants to confess to Carmen.
Azpadu’s characters are well drawn, especially her protagonist, an older butch lesbian who is an outsider amongst her family. Carmen is beautifully flawed; she drinks heavily and too easily betrays her girlfriend. At the same time, she has a strong sense of fairness, and rather than accept the condo her mother has bequeathed to her, she puts it “back into the kitty” to share amongst her siblings and their wives.
There is some beautiful writing, including a scene where Carmen meets her cranky mother’s bingo friends, who surround and “herd” her away from the wake so that they can offer her mother’s winnings. Elsewhere, she describes her ambivalence towards an ex-lover who falls asleep beside her: “she pulled the blankets over us and stretched her full length against me, leaving my torso and legs free to run off in my dreams if I needed to bolt”.
Fatigue and illness permeate this novel; two characters are being treated for cancer and Carmen, too, is recovering from a serious illness. She often doesn’t eat enough, pushes past her tiredness, and in one poignant scene had to walk, “close to the buildings” so that she “wouldn’t fall over”. At the same time, Azpadu deftly tightropes between serious and silly, offering the reader levity when needed.
If I had to criticize anything, I would say that there were a few passages where I felt Azpadu meandered into over-writing, offering more explanation than I needed. As a novelist and reader, I know that this balance between suggestion and telling is a delicate and subjective one.
I began Azpadu’s Living Room at Louis Armstrong International Airport but soon found myself on the streets of Brooklyn. By the time we touched down at Pearson International, I was deep within Carmen’s world, worrying about her, rooting for her, and rushing home so I could find out how her story would end.
Find it at your local independent bookseller or on Amazon