In the eight stories that make up If I Survive You, there is one pernicious question that snakes its way through each narrative: what are you? The answer is at once elusive and predetermined for the characters in this collection of linked stories from debut author Jonathan Escoffery. As we follow the members of a family who “came to the US not for economic advancement but to escape the violence the US government funded in Jamaica throughout the 1970s as part of its war on socialism”, Escoffery goes straight for the jugular, interrogating the false promise of the American dream and the annihilation of the self through the only seeming constant in US history, unrelenting prejudice.
These stories move through the family, from character to character, from protagonist Trelawney’s parents’ early years in Miami’s heavy heat, to his own steps into the world as an adult. It is through his eyes that we see the brutality inflicted by the fortress of American whiteness on black and second-generation immigrant identity. Escoffery’s characters are full of depth and substance, each story quickly pulling you in with unsparing prose.
The urgency that comes from these characters’ continual proximity to the edge, always being “one gig away from destitute”, pushes things forward. Though spanning decades, Escoffery manages to evoke a sense of limitless liminality. The concepts of home and belonging are picked apart, the nature of opportunity and the fraught yet unavoidable ties of family examined. The result is an assertive, unmissable debut with droll, defiant humour winding its way through.
This is a polished collection that is utterly unstoppable and skewering in its precision. Where other writers would lose a story’s rhythm and fullness by dividing it, Escoffery luxuriates in this space, using the form to underline loneliness in the midst of connection. If I Survive You is rare in that it has the heft and heart of a novel, with the refined finesse of the short story. Above all, it is a book that you simply do not want to end and, when it does, the only thing to do is eagerly press it into the hands of others.