Candice Carty-Williams’s “People Person” takes readers for a spin through south London in a gold Jeep that its owner, Cyril Pennington, treasures more than his five children. The Pennington siblings — Nikisha, Danny, Dimple, Lizzie and Prynce — are each raised by a different mother, with the exception of the eldest and youngest. The novel opens with Cyril taking his brood out for ice cream to awkwardly introduce them to each other. Then he promptly leaves them to live out the rest of their youth.
“Although he was unknowingly a master of detachment,” Carty-Williams writes in the opening pages, “Cyril saw himself as more of a people person than a father.” Indeed, while Cyril’s gregarious persona wins him points with the postman, it does nothing for his relationship with his five children, who remain estranged from both their father and each other as they grow up in south London’s diverse neighbourhoods — Brixton, Battersea and Clapham among them.
Fast forward some 15 years and Dimple — Cyril’s middle child — an unsuccessful lifestyle influencer and the novel’s protagonist, is dealing with a nasty break-up. When her ex-boyfriend Kyron comes over to admonish her for posting about their relationship, he slips on a slick of vegetable oil. It appears to have killed him but Dimple feels unable to call an ambulance: “It wasn’t just that her mum was a barrister and that a body in the house would be totally disastrous for her, but the list of reasons Dimple didn’t trust the police were obscenely long.”
So she rings her big sister, who elects to involve all the siblings. They agree to hide the body in a building site but, as they’re ready to deposit Kyron, they realise he has disappeared; he is not dead after all.
Amid the unlikely drama in the middle of which Dimple and her siblings find themselves, Carty-Williams explores the impact absent fathers can have and the ways in which sibling relationships are complicated by a common denominator who remains out of the picture.
Carty-Williams excels at taking us inside the heads of unpolished, vulnerable, flawed characters, from headstrong eldest sibling Nikisha, who knows better than everyone else, to her easy going half-brother Danny, who lets negativity slide off him as he moves on from a chequered past.
This is a highly personal book – Carty-Williams has explained it was born of a conversation between her and her older sister Selena around sibling loyalty – and the world of the Penningtons is infused with humour.
There are good contrasts between the siblings, with a range of interesting characters. Dimple is the main character, who is quick to panic and quick to cry. She can be rather self-centred, but her lack of self-confidence is what makes things awkward for her. Nikisha, the oldest, is tough and protective of her family. She is quick to help out and bossy enough to get things done. The youngest, Prynce, is a dreamer who is open to anything and lacks direction. Danny is driven after events of the past to protect his family and work hard. He’s wary of trouble, but knows family is important. Lizzie doesn’t really want a bar of any of her siblings, and tells them frequently. She’s more of a closed book than the others, independent and rather prickly. All together, they make for an interesting mix.
The Pennington siblings truly bond over their persistent desire to win the affection of their father, who makes occasional cameos in their adult lives. Cyril is absent at best and negligent at worst, but his children can’t seem to distance themselves from him, often belittling their mothers’ love in the process. Aptly, “People Person” is dedicated “to all the single mothers. Especially the ones who try their best to raise their children with the love of two parents.” In addition to sharing a Black Jamaican bus-driving father, Nikisha and Prynce are the children of a Black Jamaican mother; Lizzie’s mother is Yoruba; Dimple’s is Indian Jamaican; and Danny’s is “a friendly and more than accommodating petite white woman with a dark blond bob.”
The siblings’ dynamics reflect the politics of ethnicity and White beauty standards: Danny’s “mixed” features are often sneered at by his siblings, while Nikisha, the eldest, envies Dimple for getting special treatment from Cyril because “her mum is one of them Indian-looking women” and has “good hair.” To compensate, Nikisha makes fun of Dimple’s weight — one of the middle Pennington child’s many insecurities. By the end of the novel, the reader is sorry to leave them and we are left wondering why did the author chose Dimple as the focus of the novel? Why was the book not divided equally between the siblings with chapters dedicated to each one, so we get to know them all at depth, Nikisha and Danny in particular deserve more focus.
People Person is a novel that not only explores family dynamics and the concept of blended family but it is also a book about ordinary human beings, full of flaws and complexities but not intentionally ‘bad’ and we the reader accept and even like them for being relatable.
We have given the book 7 out of 10.
Carty-Williams the first black author to win book of the year at the British Book Awards for her debut book; Queenie (2019).
People Person is published by Trapeze (Hachette)