With “Another Brooklyn,” Jacqueline Woodson has delivered a love letter to loss, girlhood, and home. It is a lyrical, haunting exploration of family, memory, and other ties that bind us to one another and the world.
The book, the first adult novel in 20 years by this master of young-adult fiction, is told largely in flashbacks by August, an anthropologist who has returned to Brooklyn in her father’s final days and stays on to help her brother settle their dad’s affairs after the funeral. A chance meeting with an old friend unleashes a torrent of memory.
The world of August’s youth was a deteriorating Brooklyn in the mid-1970s. She and her brother had moved there with their father from their home in Tennessee to make a fresh start after the loss of their mother, who had come unmoored after the passing of her brother in Vietnam.
In opening chapters we see Brooklyn through the eyes of an 11-year-old August. It’s a dangerous place for females of all ages, one where, as August notes, women are always turning up dead and where the neighbors downstairs bring different, strange men home every night. For the young, it is a place full of traps that can derail dreams or imprison futures.
But it is also a place of beauty and tenderness, a place where DJs hook up turntables to the outlets in the streetlamps to play impromptu block parties and a place where the woman down the block will grease and braid any motherless girl’s head for $3.
Alone in this new city while her father works and her brother and father are drawn to the escape provided by their local mosque and the Nation of Islam, August is drawn to three neighborhood girls: Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela. Within this friendship, each of the girls finds the intimacy and fierce, fickle love that is unique to girlhood.
It’s a bond that is, at times, stronger than that to any of the places the girls should be calling home. And it is one that they do not understand needs to be shielded from the push of the outside world of adolescence, sex, boys, and the chaos and peril of being brown in New York City.
The language Woodson uses is, at times, astonishing. Her sentences are wonders of economy. On her pages, the oft-derided patois of teenage girlfriends — full of song lyrics, school-room facts, overheard news reports, and that gravely mystifying and misunderstood word, “love” — become elegantly sparse, full of a deep, existential longing.
Here is August, describing her friendship with the girls from her block: “That year, every song was telling some part of our story . . . We leaned in to listen as Al Green begged us to lay our heads upon his pillow and Tavares asked us to please remember what they told us to forget . . . Little pieces of Brooklyn began to fall away. Revealing us. We envied each other’s hair, eyes, butts, noses . . . Some days, we laughed until soda sprayed from our noses and hiccups erupted in our chests.”
But as much as this novel is a celebration of girlhood, it is also a deep meditation on memory. Young August is haunted by the images of her life before Brooklyn — the protected, loving family homestead of Sweet Grove and her mother and uncle. And as the girls grow ever closer, August learns that her new friends’ worlds are as suffused with loss and longing as her own. At home, the girls contend with absent fathers and mothers, overly critical parents, and an increasing loss of freedom and movement.
Throughout the book, anthropologist August considers the different ways that cultures honor their dead. “In eastern Indonesia,” she writes, “families keep their dead in special rooms in their homes. Their dead are not truly dead until the family has saved enough money to pay for their funeral. Until then, the dead remain with them, dressed and cared for each morning, taken on trips with the family, hugged daily, loved deeply.” Each of the characters in “Another Brooklyn” bears the weight that comes from loving the dead, the forgotten, the casualities of life until the emotional debt is paid and those memories can be laid to rest.
The plot and language of “Another Brooklyn” are simple, but the themes and emotions are not. This remarkable book is like water. It is deceptively fluid, the languid language and pacing circling back around itself, deepening with each whirl. What begins as a homecoming novel, shifts into a coming-of-age tale until, at the end, the book has turned again and we see that this story is an elegy for both girlhood and a Brooklyn that no longer exists.
By Jacqueline Woodson
Amistad, 175 pp., $22.99Kaitlyn Greenidge, a Boston native who now lives in Brooklyn, is author of “We Love You, Charlie Freeman.’’