Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Interplay of Place and Person: Reviews on Another Brooklyn (Woodson) and The Bones of Grace (Anam)

For the first time in many years, your friendly reviewer's body is allowing her to work a full-time job.  I'm quite tired as my body adjusts, so my reading is slow...but always present.   I prioritize writing reviews for the books I receive in return for a review, but I also have a growing list of books I actually purchased that I'd love to review some time. 
When August returns to Brooklyn to bury her father, her mind (and heart) fills with the memories of her girlhood in the 1970s.  August arrived in Brooklyn with her father and brother at the age of eight.  In the earliest days, she watches from a window and becomes particularly entranced by a set of young girls who are clearly the closest of friends.  In time, as her father gradually allows her to venture out, August becomes part of a tight-knit group of young black girls coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s.  The reader gets glimpses into lives that are very different and yet tied by the shared experience of their environment.  One girl is pressured to succeed and become a lawyer, one feels the pressure of her family's religion, one hides the dark side of her own family's secrets.  In August's own home, she feels the influence of the Nation of Islam and is impacted by her father's girlfriends and her need to protect her younger brother.  Together, the girlfriends, experience budding sexuality and burgeoning adulthood amidst a rapidly changing city that sees white flight, drug problems, and sexual violence.  It is clear from the start that the girls will drift apart, but they are a fundamental part of each other, a part they even call "home" for a time. 

This is a novel of place first and characters second.  While I'm a character-driven reader, I appreciated Woodson's ability to plunge her reader into a very specific time and place.  The reader sees Brooklyn along with the young girls and watches as the city and the girls themselves evolve.  There is beautiful and evocative language here and the author is a clear talent.  In some ways, it is high praise to say that I wanted more, but it is also why there was a bit of disappointment for me as a reader.  I also wanted a bit of a deeper connection with the characters themselves, even though I know the place was the main, an most developed character.

Certainly a lovely read, just not full enough in some ways for me.  Four stars.  Great for what it is, a short novel looking at a very specific place and how it shaped the lives of the young black women coming of age amid its chaos.  Many thanks to the publisher for providing me a reviewer's edition in exchange for an honest, unfettered review.

I'll start with two "points of order."  First, this is the third in a series of books about different members (and different generations) of a Bangladeshi family.  I did read the second, The Good Muslim, but didn't read the first and each book is fully capable of standing on its own.  Reading the others might help provide insight into the family members at the edges of the subsequent novels, but it is by no means necessary. Second, like with the prior book, I received this from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased, honest review.

To a large extent, this book is a letter to a lost love.  Zubaida is working as a researcher in anthropology when she meets Elijah at a classical concert.  They have a very intense but brief period together before she leaves for a dig in Pakistan where they are hoping to uncover the "walking whale," an important link in a very unique (and apparently quite real) evolutionary chain. The dig is halted very suddenly (I won't reveal details) and Zubaida chooses to return to Bangaldesh and marry a childhood friend rather than pursue what she knows is a truer love with Elijah.  A series of events at home eventually send Zubaida to a very different world where a filmmaker is trying to tell the story of shipbreakers, men (and children) who engage in the very dangerous work of tearing apart old ships for their parts. 

Honestly, there's more to the plot but I hesitate to say too much.  And that also goes to the heart of my problem with this novel, it simply takes on too much.  I enjoyed getting to know Zubaida and could very much feel the way she is torn between true love (and career) and her past (and culture, family, and expectation).  There were moments where I loved this book and the characters in it (who are all very realistically flawed), but it also just overwhelmed me.  

It all combines to a 3.5 rating.  Recommended to readers interested in the pull between culture/tradition and the life one is drawn to by the heart.