Bahia Blues, By Yasmina Traboulsi

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From Maria Aparecida the seen-it-all matriarch to the soft-hearted parish priest Father Denilson; from the orphaned whore Gabriela to Ivone, the wannabe diva of the telenovelas, and Sergio the street vendor who, aged seven, heads his family: this swift-flowing, strong-flavoured novel begins in an operatic interplay of voices.

Each one speaks to us of hard lives and fond hopes on the square where they live and struggle in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Plainly indebted to Jorge Amado, the sexy (and soapy) Dickens of Bahia, London-based French writer Yasmina Traboulsi begins in a vein that promises a carnival of colour, character – and, perhaps, some tear-jerking sentimentality as well. To her (and translator Polly McLean's) credit, the tone darkens and the action quickens as the pull of huge cities – Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo – scatters this band of comrades-in-poverty and condemns them to harsher fates than scraping by in Salvador. "Away from the Square you're nothing," warns Maria Aparecida, a prophecy fulfilled in the gang-ridden favelas and opulent "fortresses of fear" of metropolitan Brazil. "Goodbye to nice manners and all that foolishness": but, even in the big bad city, farce finds a niche as soap-star Olympia flees her gilded cage. At the other pole of a violently unjust society, gay teenagers Manuel and Zé face the ordeal of jail. With its rapid cuts, boldly-drawn cast and galloping sense of doom, Bahia Blues delivers a shot of fiery fictional cachaça – and calls out for City of God-style direction to bring it to the screen.