Jacqueline Woodson, a young African-American writer mainly noted for her children’s books, has written a flawless book for adults called Another Brooklyn.  The novel follows the fortunes of four African-American girls, at first pre-pubescent, and then as adolescents, in the mostly poverty-laden streets of a part of Brooklyn in the ’80s. By using the trope of the evolving changes of the lives of girls that age, Woodson has picked a perfect plot device to show the readers the differences and things in common shared by four girls of that age.  August, the narrator, lives without a mother with her father and brother, in a tightly controlled world; for years, they watch the world of Brooklyn from a window in their apartment while their father is at work; their mother’s whereabouts are at first vague (the father handles this with deft success), and later, with ambivalence.  The two children are tightly bonded. And the father’s life, living in such small, cramped quarters (three rooms, really) is beautifully rendered from August’s point of view.

Each of the four girls has certain skills, talents, really, and the novel shows us their varied circumstances–one comes from a relatively affluent family, the other three do not–and, as adolescence hits, and with it, that explosive sexual longing that Woodson describes so very, very well–we wonder whether these girls, or which ones, may make it out of these mean streets, which ones will get pregnant, and the like.  Woodson in no way denies these girls their sexualities, and her eye for the sheer physicality of sex is really extraordinary.  The boys with whom they date, romp, cavort, are sometimes a little vague, but by making them seem all hormones, Woodson gets a good sense of how important sex is when it’s new and how easily it can ruin a life, too.  The book focuses heavily on the loyalty amongst these four girls, how bonded they are, how they talk and act and care for one another.

Woodson’s writing style is a lot like Patti Smith’s.  What each woman achieves so brilliantly is an ability to paint wide swaths about their characters lives, dipping only briefly but intensely into specific details of their lives, so each episode summarizes the whole: this is a very tricky way to write; it’s impressionistic while also being specific, and when it’s successful, as with Woodson and Smith, it’s amazingly successful and very appealing, like the “misty, watercolored memories” noted in the song “The Way We Were”.  Writing as an adult about younger days does put a patina on time, on the past, and makes one very forgiving of one’s earlier self. Woodson seems a master at the genre.  But those details have to be selected with the greatest of care, so we don’t lose the sense of each girl’s character or the interactions between and amongst them.  Woodson’s narrator/protagonist, August, is the one who gets out on a scholarship to an Ivy League school–and we get a real sense of those odds so against her getting there (I suspect that August is some version of the author herself). The other three girls have very different futures, in one case, true tragedy hits.  And Woodson, who is a lesbian, allows August the fluidity of gender and sexuality increasingly respected in younger generations of Americans as normal, so that her college affairs include those with women and men.

Woodson’s not just trying to get August and her friends out of the neighborhood; she looks back on those adolescent years with genuine fondness for her girls, and she is more than kind and generous to August’s father’s trials raising two children on his own.  Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous novel, lyrical yet grounded, and it adds greatly to our sense of the lives of African-American girls who grow up in poverty, some with two parents, others not, and demystifies those externals with real intelligence.  It’s not a long novel, but it’s a beautiful one, and anyone who loves this particular kind of writing style will find Another Brooklyn exceptionally fine.

–Daniel Brown

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