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Book Review: Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta by James Hannaham

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By Simon Demetriou

The title of the James Hannaham’s latest novel is ironic, because one would need to be both inhuman and immune to stylistic brilliance to be able to spend any time in Carlotta Mercedes’ world without starting to care deeply about the protagonist of Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta.

Carlotta’s deadname was Dustin Chambers; this is the name she bore when incarcerated two decades ago. Now, after more than 20 years in Ithaca, during which Carlotta began living as a woman, she finally makes parole and re-enters society. The book is a hilarious, clever, and moving account of Carlotta’s first full day of freedom, taking us from Harlem to Coney Island as we see Carlotta discover that ‘freedom be some wild shit.’

It sure is, if you’ve spent the last 20 years being systematically abused by those who were meant to be safeguarding you, finally found some semblance of love with a murderous but dreamy inmate named Frenzy, been released back into a drastically altered New York, been given a list of impossible parole stipulations, found that the only person who remembered your release date is a niece you’ve never met, and that your family home is playing host to a drunk orgy of a funeral when you’re not allowed to be around booze or drugs. Oh, and the son you’ve dreamed of seeing for so long is pursuing a career in Christian rap and believes that your new self is the work of Satan.

It is clear how ripe Carlotta’s situation is for comedy, and Hannaham is brilliantly funny in both plotting and phrasing, as when the narrator describes Carlotta feeling ‘like a brain-damaged African elephant trying to jump into a game of double Dutch’, or when Carlotta engages in a snap-battle with her son, Ibe, culminating in, ‘here you think I’m a ignant fool an a crook-ass tranny bitch, an it turn out I’m a genius who be quotin Shakespeare’.

Ultimately, Hannaham’s great achievement is the way in which he weaves from third person narrative to first person interjections within the same sentences, infusing the book with Carlotta’s voice and personality, one which wins the reader over thanks to her sheer vivacity, resilience and optimism. No matter what Carlotta goes through, she never loses her belief in love and in life, reflecting on the human tendency to ‘treat ev’thing like it was worthless when it was really so precious, when that shit was our lives’. Not for Carlotta: her story ends with a beginning in a deliberately Joycean exclamation of exuberant positivity: ‘I’ma say Yes motherfucker, said hell to the yes I’m saying YASS.’ Say yes to this book. You won’t regret it.

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