They used to be inseparable. They used to be young, brave and brilliant – amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone. August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi shared everything: songs, secrets, fears and dreams. But 1970s Brooklyn was also a dangerous place, where grown men reached for innocent girls, where mothers disappeared and futures vanished at the turn of a street corner.
Another Brooklyn is a heartbreaking and exquisitely written novel about a fleeting friendship that united four young lives, from one of our most gifted novelists.
Jacqueline Woodson is best known for her many children’s novels, having won any number of awards for them; this isn’t her first foray into adult fiction, but Another Brooklyn is one of the few of her novels that have crossed the Atlantic, and it’s my first foray into her work.
I went into Another Brooklyn expecting a (queer) coming of age tale like any other, about growing up black in Brooklyn. That’s not what this book is; it’s a rather more complicated beast than that, and a rather more interesting one than a straightforward literary bildungsroman. Instead, Another Brooklyn intersperses August as an adult, reflecting on the death of her father, as a frame narrative to looking back on her childhood, aged eight and growing up to go to college; Woodson draws the two strands together across the course of the novel, never losing sight of the fact that this is remembered history, full of regrets, being retold by a character, but also bringing a lot of immediacy to that retelling.
Another Brooklyn is rawly emotional. It isn’t emotional in an adolescent way, but in the way of a soul being bared; reflective and thoughtful, but incredibly powerful in the quiet conveying of the highs and lows of childhood. The blended timeline is a little unclear at the start of the book, as Woodson introduces the grown-up August, the teenage August, and the child August all at once, without separating them into clearly separate periods, but this is very intentional. While across the course of the novel it creates a kind of poetry as she unpicks the three different timelines, bringing everything into focus to give us a powerful picture, the abstraction of the lack of simple chronology really lends an additional boost to an already poetic style to give us a long prose poem in many stanzas, it can be singularly offputting at the start.
Woodson never stints on her characters. Another Brooklyn is essentially August’s story, but it’s also the story of her three friends, each of whom comes from a radically different background and goes in a radically different direction, but who come together for some years in Brooklyn before drifting apart; their friendship and relationships are beautifully conveyed, and their individuality incredibly powerfully realised. But the rest of the cast, from their various parents to the boys they pick up, are all very rapidly fleshed out with an amazing economy of language, Woodson using actions and words rather than August’s reflections for the most part to reveal character, but consistently cutting to the quick of it with that linguistic economy.
Another Brooklyn, by virtue of the story it tells, is a very political book. Woodson doesn’t shy away from that, although her afterword never makes it explicit; this is a story about “what it means to grow up girl in this country” (page 172), and more explicitly what it means to grow up as a black girl. Woodson takes in the toxic masculinity of American culture that visits sexual violence on children and adolescents as readily as it does on adults, and the way that is normalised; she writes about the Nation of Islam not as some strange foreign thing but as a part of the black experience of America, and writes about Islam with a sympathy that many writers fail to find; and she slips queerness in all over the place, without highlighting it, simply as a facet of various characters’ lives.
Another Brooklyn isn’t a political book in the sense of being a manifesto: it’s a political book in the sense of telling a story that is inherently political. It’s a prose poem, an imagined biography, and a beautiful story of coming of age as a black woman in America.
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