Heliopolis, By James Scudamore

Slum kid turned millionaire finds life tough in high society
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The Independent Culture

There is a good pun in the title of James Scudamore's new novel. Heliopolis is the name of the favela in Sao Paulo in which his hero, Ludo, was born – and from where he was plucked, along with his mother, by a wealthy businessman and his philanthropist wife, to live and work on their country farm. But Heliopolis could also refer to the very different Sao Paulo that Ludo is adopted into – the city of the ultra-rich who zip from rooftop to rooftop by helicopter, avoiding the ground for fear of traffic jams or, worse, hijacking.

We meet Ludo in his mid-twenties, just as his effortless life is threatening to spin out of control. He has a cushy job in advertising, thanks to the influence of his new dad, Zé "Generoso" Carnicelli, but still gets patronised as a slum kid made good. For his part, Ludo is doing his best to undermine what security and self-respect he has by carrying on a semi-incestuous affair with his adoptive sister, Melissa.

Ludo is put in charge of advertising for the new venture of Zé's grocery business, which is planning to open a discount chain in the favelas. The job might be bearable if it didn't mean working with Melissa's husband, the all-too-likeable cuckold Ernesto, who is as dignified and decent as Ludo is shallow and morally lax.

Which neat contrivance points to the novel's only real fault. It offers a convincing panorama of Sao Paulo society, from the very top of this "dazzling, infinite city" to the very bottom, but tends to do so through a brusque short-circuiting of connections between people. Not just the relationship between Ludo and Melissa (and what is more neat than incest?), and the work-life collision represented by Ernesto, but also the street kid that Ludo accidentally gets shot by a security guard – who turns out to be the son of a cleaner in his office.

The well-paced narrative flips easily between Ludo's current crisis, and his memories of the unusual upbringing that brought him to it – but things resolve themselves just that bit too readily. We leave our hero happily washed up on the shores of maturity, but it makes the novel seem less a fully-formed Bildungsroman than Act One of a larger story. Scudamore is a good enough writer that you want to read more, but it would have been nice to have had that "more" right here.