Aug 19, 2015

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Persona by Genevieve ValentinePersona takes place in a near and not improbable future where the worlds of politics and PR have become entirely indistinguishable. Nations are represented by Faces, celebrity ambassadors whose charisma sways public opinion, and who are themselves stage-managed by their handlers; the media is expertly manoeuvred; and paparazzi (known as Snaps) can sometimes make their fortune by coming across information that disrupts the carefully controlled narratives that are presented to the world.

Suyana Supaki is the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, a nation compromised of what was formerly Brazil and Peru. Suyana is Peruvian and one of the Quechua people; she was discovered and sent into training at a young age, after she and her mother were arrested at a protest march. At the start of Persona, Suyana is a C-list Face: not quite famous or influential enough to have much of a say, and in the process of negotiating a public relationship with Ethan, the Face of the United States, which would be beneficial for her image and his.

However, her whole life changes when someone attempts to assassinate Suyana: she manages to escape, but she doesn’t know whether even her own handler is behind the attack. Suyana has some secrets she’s been guardian closely, and their discovery is all too likely to turn the International Assembly (or someone within it) against her. She forms an unlikely alliance with a Snap named Daniel Park, a runaway photographer with secrets of his own; together the two attempt to survive in the streets of Paris and to find out who is after them both. The tense present-day scenes are intertwined with flashbacks where we learn more about Suyana’s and Daniel’s histories and how they shape their current motivations.

I suspect that in the hands of many writers, a concept like Persona’s — celebrity culture and politics have become closely entwined — would propel a lot of commentary about the shallowness of such a world and all who inhabit it. Readers familiar with Genevieve Valentine will probably not be surprised to hear that this is not what she does. Yes, the system orchestrated by the International Assembly is all about public persuasion, much like our own, but within this system there are good, intelligent people who take their jobs seriously and want to make a difference. I liked that Persona explored the depth of skill that goes into public presentation — anything from clothes to makeup to demeanour — without ever buying into the troublingly gendered notion that such skills are inherently frivolous. There are many ways to manipulate public perception, and it shouldn’t be just one that comes under scrutiny.

To go back to what I was saying earlier this week, I’m interested in stories about resistance within very constrained systems, and this is something Valentine excels at. I’m also interested in examinations of how much people feel they can afford to risk and why, which is largely what Persona turned out to be about. This novel is a gripping political thriller (I read it in a single day, which hadn’t happened in ages), and at the same time it’s a story that, against the odds, carves out small pockets of political agency for the woman at its centre. Suyana (spoilers ahead, so beware if you mind them) turns out to be involved with Chordata, an organisation devoted to ecological resistance, and uses her role as a Face to quietly but effectively support their activism. Hers is the sort of resistance that often gets overlooked: perhaps not the final shove that topples an unfair system, but the kind of essential groundwork that leads to the first few cracks in its foundation.

Throughout the course of the novel, Suyana has cause to think about different forms of defiance and how even people who seem invincible and entirely in control can be more vulnerable than one would expect:
Suyana felt someone in Grace’s position might be bold, and defy what everyone expected. But the dynamics of power were only obvious in retrospect, no matter how high up you went. And since Suyana, at this time yesterday, had been letting Oona the stylist deep-condition her hair for her meeting with Ethan, she had nothing to say about what people were willing to do when they had to.
Another thing I liked were all the unlikely alliances Suyana forms during her time as a runaway Face, particularly with other women. Grace, the UK’s Face, is not someone Suyana ever believed she could trust, but she surprises her at a crucial moment.

Speaking of trust: Persona is in many ways nothing like Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, one of my favourite reads of last year, and yet there was something about Suyana’s emotional restraint that really reminded me of Jo. Here’s an apt summary of the kind of emotional space Suyana occupies:
Suyana didn’t know if it was worse to let someone get one over you, or to throw away real feelings. It seemed such a sin, not to believe the truth when it was handed to you; it was a rare enough thing.
Both Suyana and Jo are women placed in extremely difficult positions that mean they can afford to give very little. Trust seems like too much of a luxury from where they’re standing, and the reader is allowed to see exactly why. So when it comes, then, it means everything, no matter how subtle its manifestation. Valentine writes her characters in a way that imbues small moments and gestures with all the meaning they merit. There’s so much between the lines in her novels; so much that isn’t quite being said but that we’re allowed to glimpse.

Persona ends with a moment of triumph that feels genuine and earned, and hints ever so subtly at a better world to come. There’s a dark side to it too, and yet — much like Kristen with her tattoos in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — Suyana resists its banalisation.
(Some things she hadn’t forgotten. There were things she knew about the way a blade cut through the body that would never go.)
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, By Singing Light, you?

7 comments:

  1. I liked Persona, and I realize belatedly that Kate Bow's newest book, The Scorpion Rules, reminds me of it quite a bit. Persona's focus is on celebrity culture, while The Scorpion Rules is about power a bit more, but they both feature heroines for whom being in the public eye has been everything in their lives. It's interesting to me because it highlights the way society makes women feel they're sort of perpetually on a stage -- in the case of the heroines of Persona and The Scorpion Rules, this is more literally true, and it makes for fascinating reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I want to read The Scorpion Rules so badly! And yes absolutely re: women being made to feel perpetually watched. I can't wait to see how the two novels approach these ideas.

      (This has been such a good year for new books.)

      Delete
  2. This definitely sounds like one I need to get my hands on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You do! (And also Girls at the Kingfisher Club which I really think you'd adore.)

      Delete
  3. YOU ARE SO RIGHT THAT VALENTINE IS GREAT AT "stories about resistance within very constrained systems." That's such a perfect way to put it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, thank you! She really, really is. I want her next novel nooooooooow.

      Delete
  4. Oh, this sounds fascinating. I will be investigating!

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.