In his novel City of Strangers, Ian MacKenzie highlights the harsh reality lived by a man who believes his present can be altered by his actions, while the city he lives in, is complicit in proving that his efforts change nothing and his life continues down a path that is unwanted and plagued with regret. With his new novel Feast Days, MacKenzie again sets out to show us how a city changes its people, while the city itself remains impassive and observant.
Emma is a young expat, uprooted from New York to Brazil when her husband is transferred to the overpopulated city of Sāo Paulo. From the beginning, Emma is uncertain of what her role is, what she is supposed to do as a wife whose life has changed so drastically. She states that the term expats use to refer to people in her same situation is “trailing spouse,” a term that is every bit as derogatory as it sounds, but Emma goes further and applies the word “ancillary” to herself, “a word that comes from the Latin for ‘having the status of a female slave.'”
That Emma is bereft is clear, but it is even more of an enigma to figure out what she really wants. She doesn’t seem to miss her New York job as a content writer for a cement company’s social media sites, but instead is nostalgic of the freedom it afforded her. In Brazil she becomes a housewife, a role she never wanted and socializes with other “trailing spouses” as a means of distraction.
However, Emma gradually becomes attuned to a city that is in constant political and social crisis when she and her husband (whose name is never revealed) are robbed at knife point outside an upscale restaurant:
‘Aliança,’ one of the other boys said. He meant my husband’s wedding band; I usually left mine at the apartment, on the advice of an ex-policeman. They were favela boys, dressed raggedly, seething with adrenaline and desperation. It was lucky for the boys that my husband spoke Portuguese—or lucky for my husband, or lucky for me. No foreigner without Portuguese would have known the meaning of ‘aliança.’
The robbery is a foreshadowing of later events that add on to the already convoluted state of Emma’s marriage that is aggravated upon their arrival in Sāo Paulo. Her husband wants a child, or accurately speaking, says Emma “multiple children, two or three, whereas the only number I was sure I was comfortable with was zero.” This disparity in the desire of offspring is an ongoing topic throughout the plot, while Emma does her best to adapt.
She is recommended by a colleague of her husband’s to work as an English tutor, and later by another acquaintance, to volunteer as a French interpreter for Haitian refugees at a church. While her husband works late, Emma is left often on her own to find her place in a city she finds both hostile and fascinating.
MacKenzie’s narrative could better be described as complex vignettes, forming pieces of conversations and events that are oftentimes non-sequential, which can sometimes be confusing and difficult to follow. However, MacKenzie makes up for it with a main character that evokes not only empathy but also a good deal of curiosity. Emma is not a whiner or a weakling; she attempts to make Sāo Paulo home in the best way she knows how, by merging with its inhabitants and trying to understand it from within.
When she participates in a protest that in the end turns violent, she sees first hand what it means to be repressed by a brutal police force, an attempt to silence the voices of those who hunger for change. She doesn’t fall into temptation when the lure of an affair presents itself, telling herself that in the end, it will not be worth the trouble to risk her marriage. Emma knows that her unhappiness goes deeper than a fleeting absence of amorous attention and that a sexual tryst will not alleviate it.
The ending of Feast Days is inconclusive, one that perhaps MacKenzie deemed fitting for a story that can’t be neatly wrapped tightly together. Emma’s story as an expat in Sāo Paulo is also the story of her as an expat within her own marriage, and within her own previously firm convictions. Feast Days poses the dilemma of being a stranger not solely in a strange land, but also inside our own lives.