The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel, Another Brooklyn, seems fitting given the proliferation of Brooklyn-based novels. In fact, Brooklyn has grown so accustomed to its status as a literary setting that its home magazine has created a literary map with 28 sites celebrated in poems, novels, and essays. (By the way, it’s time to update that 2014 map to include a couple of recent titles.) Jacqueline Woodson now adds to a genre that includes Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009), Alice McDermott’s Someone (2013), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (2000), and Betty Smith’s much canonized A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). But Woodson gives us another Brooklyn altogether.
This is Woodson’s first novel for adults (though I couldn’t have loved Brown Girl Dreaming any more, no matter whether it was meant for a person younger than I). Here, Woodson’s main character may be grown, but she hasn’t yet come to terms with the site of her adolescence. Brooklyn takes on different guises depending on which memory her mind picks up to examine. In one, it is a neighborhood of people “all beautiful in some way—beautifully thin, beautifully obese, beautifully Afroed, or cornrowed, or bald.” In another, it is a place where carefree girlfriends “linked arms and laughed.” In the best of them, it is a home where four girls could together find “everything.”
But as they grow up and reveal to one another their secrets and stories, August and her best friends can’t ignore that their Brooklyn has an uglier side. The reality of their home is that it’s a place where mothers disappear and girls are raped. The girls learn to carry blades inside their knee socks and to keep their fingernails long as a means of self-protection. “But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades.” For August, her friends, her brother, and everyone around them, survival starts to supersede aspiration: “Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.”
Partly to escape her pain and partly to understand it, August often lets her mind wander to SweetGrove, the place she considers home—a place of green, wide-open spaces and deep family roots. But as she pieces together the memories of her time before Brooklyn, she has to acknowledge some hard truths. The mother that used to stroke her cheek and brush her hair was beset by suicidal depression. The home that belonged to her family for generations had been seized by the government. The landscape that seemed so open to promise was actually the scene of her mother’s death.
As an adult, August’s career as an anthropologist takes her far from Brooklyn, and it teaches her ways to cope with the disappearances and deaths of her childhood. Well, maybe. When August encounters her old friend Sylvia on the subway, her reaction shows just how far she still has to go.
I’m always hesitant to say a book can be read in one sitting, since life usually interrupts even the best-intentioned readers. But this comes about as close to a one-sitting novel as you can get. It is easy and wonderful to get lost in its lyrical prose and its short sections of narrative. You’ll have come to the end before you know you began; but build in some time after to reflect.