Is friendship the deepest kind of love? The publication last year of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which centres on the relationship between two childhood friends, and the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are founded on the story of a friendship, point to a fascination with a bond that is often taken for granted or ignored altogether in favour of its more glamorous relative, romantic love. But friendship – and especially the friendships between women – can be far more central to the formation of identity than romance.
In Jacqueline Woodson’s haunting novel the narrator’s mother understands the power of these connections; and to her, this strength brings danger. She tells her daughter, named August for the month of her birth, not to trust other women. “Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”
Woodson’s name will be more familiar to readers in America; and over there it is more familiar to readers of books published for children. She is the recipient of four Newbery Honor awards, which recognise excellence in writing for young people; her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. But the boundary between writing for young people and writing for adults is not necessarily fixed; it is often set by publishers rather than writers themselves. Another Brooklyn is presented as Woodson’s first adult novel in two decades, yet it does the book no disservice to say that its portrait of teenage girls growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s would speak as powerfully to younger readers as it would do to readers of “literary” fiction. Like David Almond here in Britain, Woodson understands that the emotions of the young are no less sophisticated than those of the adults they will become.
In 1973 August and her younger brother move with their father from Tennessee to Brooklyn, from what August paints as a rural idyll to a place of poverty and violence. Brooklyn may be fashionable now, but it wasn’t then: one of the novel’s recurring images is the moving vans taking frightened white families out to the suburbs. August’s mother does not travel with them; another refrain is August reassuring herself that her mother will join them. “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet,” the book begins.
Into the gap of love and longing left by her mother come Angela, Gigi and Sylvia, who together make whole what has been broken. “And as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” Yet what the novel demonstrates, with its lovely, unshowy language, is how hard it will be to hold on to that idea of home, not only within the friendship group but outside it, too.
All four friends are drawn together – and then drawn apart – by their dreams and by their family circumstances; as friends they want to see themselves as equals, but it’s a fragile equality. Adolescence brings both opportunity and danger – a danger that often comes from inside, from their own bodies: “Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood.” They cling to girlhood: “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists.” But it is beyond their power to cling to their youth, and finally, to what holds them close.
The title of the novel seems to hold many meanings: a metaphorical past, a time and a place that cannot be recovered. All of its characters search for identity, as the girls measure the colour of their skin against each other, the straightness or curl of their hair; August’s father and brother turn to the Nation of Islam for a spiritual home, and the novel opens with August, now an adult, meeting her grown brother, who chides her affectionately for straying from its teachings. But August left Brooklyn for college and the study of anthropology; she is a scholar whose speciality is rituals of death as practised around the world. Brief descriptions of these rituals thread the text. For finally, as August learns, it is only by considering and acknowledging death that life can be fully lived.
Another Brooklyn is a beautiful coming-of-age novel, heartfelt and true. Woodson’s publisher, Oneworld, has a remarkable track record of spotting novels that deserve wider attention outside their native lands; Another Brooklyn can now be added to that list.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson is published by Oneworld (175pp, £10.99)
This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage