Azúcar by Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Leeds, UK. Peepal Tree Press. 2023. 196 pages.
Longing doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder. Desire makes it grow in every direction and back again. We look beneath rocks, pursue careers, and even make art—all for the sake of finding the place or person (or both) that makes us feel at home. And there are few novels that feel more like home than Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s unforgettable tale, Azúcar.
Spanish for “sugar,” Azúcar appropriately breaks love down to its rawest components. In the mid-nineteenth century and on the fictional island of Fumaz, a man simply named Soñada becomes the unknowing patriarch of a world-famous rice producer. His ancestor, Emelina, inherits the family’s original estate. But she’s a relative stranger to Fumaz except for one fateful night.
Conversely, Yunior is a renowned singer and a significantly less-renowned (yet still noteworthy) ecologist. His life takes him through Fumaz’s black market, its interactions with other nations, and ultimately to the center stage of the island’s vibrant musical scene. Amid all of it, a brief glimpse of Emelina lingers at the back of his mind, as if he can feel the frayed fabric of destiny brush against his forehead.
But Azúcar is no fairy tale. Life goes on as Yunior falls in love with an undercover agent, Lorretta. Meanwhile, Emelina launches her legal career in the US. Despite their seemingly cosmic trajectory, Parkes never fully commits to the myth that people are “made for each other.”
The bulk of Azúcar’s magic isn’t reserved for the star-crossed lovers. Instead, it draws its power from music. Parkes describes song as this living, pulsing force. It’s an authority to which we willingly succumb. It reminds us that Yunior and Emelina’s story isn’t truly written but sung. Music influences every character in some form and, in the novel’s final act, breathes a refreshing amount of life into Manuel Ortega, Fumaz’s agricultural minister.
Azúcar’s only weakness is that it’s a little too fleeting. Emelina isn’t quite as developed as Yunior. While we see decades of his growth as a musician and ecologist, Emelina’s legal career is entirely absent save a lone scene in her office. This blind spot doesn’t detract from what’s ultimately most compelling about these two characters, but it’s hard not to dwell on it in retrospect.
Ultimately, Azúcar is a fiery love story ignited by a generational saga and fueled by truly moving prose about music. Parkes’s novel doesn’t just hit close to home—it brings you there.