This novel feels to me like a poem or a painting. A story told under dim, forgiving lights with a record that never ends, wine that never empties. This novel is more like a feeling than a story; even though it is full of plot points, it rarely pushes with action. It pushes like a dream, like a memory, the major heartbreak always right on top even as we wander through cities and schools, remembering the smell of the hairbrush whilst never ever forgetting the loss, not even for a second.
“As a child, I had not known the word anthropology or that there was a thing called Ivy League. I had not known that you could spend your days on planes, moving through the world, studying death, your whole life before this life an unanswered question…finally answered. I had seen death in Indonesia and Korea. Death in Mauritania and Mongolia. I had watched the people of Madagascar exhume the muslin-wrapped bones of their ancestors, spray them with perfume, and ask those who had already passed to the next place for their stories, prayers, blessings. I had been home a month watching my father die. Death didn’t frighten me. Not now. Not anymore. But Brooklyn felt like a stone in my throat.”
This book is about Brooklyn in the 1970’s. It is about poverty, and the power of family to either hold kids together or tear them apart. It is about girls becoming women, and the brutal realities of surviving in a patriarchy. It is about the intense friendships of adolescence. And it is about African Americans. It is not, thankfully, about victims.
(Photo: Amy Attas)
Woodson first shows us 1970’s Brooklyn from above, through the eyes of two children looking out their apartment window. Their father won’t let them outside because he wants to keep them safe. So we see this neighbourhood encapsulated in glass, as if in amber, as if in documentary film. Slowly the children are allowed out to play, first to the back gate, then to the street, then to the corner, but we readers remain behind the glass of memory, of the narrator’s coping mechanisms of fantasy and faith, of conflicting ideas of truth.
Like Katherena Vermette’s The Break, Woodson depicts a “bad neighbourhood” in new light. If you don’t understand how a bad neighbourhood works, everything you see will be cloaked in your own fear. But through these intelligent women, through this powerful fiction, that fear is pulled away and layers upon layers of meaning and motivation are revealed. There are no answers, but there is empathy and information. The talented don’t always succeed, and the rich don’t always triumph despite their silver platter. Sometimes parents can hold on to their daughters, but just one mistake and they might slip away.