Jacqueline Woodson, one of the most celebrated young adult authors in the country, has always challenged her adolescent readers — and older readers, too. In books such as “Brown Girl Dreaming,” her memoir in verse, which won a National Book Award, or “Miracle’s Boys,” which won a Coretta Scott King Award, Woodson explores class, race and death with unflinching honesty and emotional depth.
So, in a way, it feels a little artificial to note that her new book, “Another Brooklyn,” is her first novel for adults since “Autobiography of a Family Photo” more than 20 years ago. But if that’s what it takes to broaden Woodson’s audience, I’m all for it. Her younger fans won’t pay any attention to these labels anyway, and nothing here is beyond the purview of interested teenagers.
“Another Brooklyn” is a short but complex story that arises from simmering grief. It lulls across the pages like a mournful whisper. “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet,” the narrator begins, which perfectly conveys the novel’s suspended sorrow. Now an anthropologist who studies the way different cultures honor their dead, August is an adult looking back at her adolescence in the 1970s. She came to Brooklyn with her younger brother two decades earlier when their father hoped they could all start a new life away from the tragedies that shattered their family back in Tennessee.
But August and her brother aren’t so much renewed as arrested in this alien, dangerous place. Unable to acknowledge her mother’s death, young August pines for her return while staring out the window, month after month. “If someone had asked, Are you lonely? I would have said, No,” August says. “I would have pointed to my brother and said, He’s here. I would have lied even as the empty street on rainy afternoons threatened to swallow me whole.”
This act of storytelling is a kind of victory over the sadness that once silenced August. By the time she turned 15, she remembers, “I was barely speaking. Where words had once flowed easily, I was suddenly silent, breath snatched from me, replaced by a melancholy my family couldn’t understand.”
Woodson reminds us that this was, indeed, another Brooklyn, far from the tony borough of multi-million-dollar brownstones and speciality grocery stores. Heroin addicts wobble along these streets. A prostitute who lives beneath August’s family loses her children to Social Services. “White people we didn’t know filled the trucks with their belongings,” August remembers, “and in the evenings, we watched them take long looks at the buildings they were leaving, then climb into station wagons and drive away.”
In a voice that mingles the child’s longing with the adult’s awareness, August studies a trio of girls who pass below her window. “I was beginning to hate them,” she says. “I was beginning to love them.” When her father finally lets her leave the apartment, she quickly bonds with these girls, and the four of them form a tight support group in a world determined to humiliate them, eager to molest them. “We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them — our voices loud, our laughter even louder. But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades.”
Some of the book’s most moving passages involve their efforts to encourage each other. One girl wants to become an actress; another a dancer; another a lawyer. But everywhere the culture conspires against them. “Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood,” Woodson writes. One by one, the girls are lured or dragged away from their dreams, sometimes with shocking, even deadly results. “When you’re fifteen,” August says, “pain skips over reason, aims right for marrow.” Which is right where this exquisite novel strikes, too.
Although less formally experimental than “Brown Girl Dreaming,” “Another Brooklyn” still presents its own distinctive structure: Every paragraph is set off by blank lines, which emphasizes the poetic style of Woodson’s prose. That structure also effectively slows the narrative down and contributes to its dream-like tone. Time is fluid in this story, as August recalls events that impressed her — and events that she repressed, reaching back to moments in Tennessee and forward to relationships later in life. “Death didn’t frighten me. Not now. Not anymore. But Brooklyn felt like a stone in my throat,” she says. “I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.”
It’s as much as a compliment as a complaint to say that I wish the story were fuller. There’s enough material here for a much longer novel, and, though Woodson’s prose is always carefully constructed, she’s sometimes so elliptical that complicated issues are illuminated only obliquely. I would, for instance, have eagerly learned much more about how August’s family was affected by their involvement with the Nation of Islam.
But that’s the real attraction of this novel, which mixes wonder and grief so poignantly. Woodson manages to remember what cannot be documented, to suggest what cannot be said. “Another Brooklyn” is another name for poetry.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Jacqueline Woodson
Amistad. 175 pp. $22.99