Martins’ debut collection, which comprises 13 short stories set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, walks a difficult tightrope with consummate skill: it renders the everyday brutality of favela life with urgency and sensitivity, without ever lapsing into exploitative voyeurism or fetishistic sentimentalism. These stories tell of precociously streetwise youths and their scrapes – or, in the colloquial parlance, perrengues – with petty criminals and law enforcement.
With a recent profile in the Guardian, appearances on literary panels with Booker nominees and the rights to his book already sold for a film adaptation, Martins is certainly a writer whose reputation precedes him. But while the stories in The Sun on My Head offer a vibrant and modern view of life in Rio’s favelas, the writing lacks the precision and craft of authors such as Junot Díaz, Daniel Alarcón and fellow Brazilian Adriana Lisboa... Martins struggles with endings. His stories mostly jolt to a finish, or occasionally spring an unearned epiphany on reader and character. They are fleeting snapshots of favela life, usually from the perspective of young male characters whose struggles range from finding “bud” and caring for infants to disposing of bodies. Yet if the aim of Martins’s writing is to give a flavour of how fraught it is to grow up in a hugely underprivileged community of the “Broken City”, he has achieved this in his book. There are many strengths to his storytelling, not least a way with colour and energy that bring most settings and scenarios to life.