It’s hard to figure out how to talk about Another Brooklyn, the latest novel from National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson. Its prose is so delicate, its structure so gauzy, that it feels as if the whole thing will disappear if you look directly at it.
Which is not to say the book is insubstantial — only that its power lies in what it leaves unsaid. Describing it means either translating Woodson’s elegant, poetic elisions into prose, or leaving gaping holes in the narration.
Here’s an attempt: Over the course of Another Brooklyn, a young girl named August loses her mother and moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to pre-gentrification ’70s Brooklyn. She attaches herself to a group of girlfriends and grows into a teenager. She acquires and loses an older boyfriend. Her father converts to Islam. She attaches herself more passionately to her girlfriends, until she loses them. She leaves Brooklyn and goes to college. She becomes an anthropologist.
But within that structure Woodson indirectly addresses all the things we leave unsaid about adolescence.
There’s August’s profound love for and devotion to her girlfriends, and her slowly developing worry that they will betray her. There’s the odd consciousness of being a teenage girl and beginning to learn that you will always be watched. There’s the specific experience of being black in Brooklyn in the ’70s. And there’s August’s gnawing grief for her absent mother, which lies at the heart of the book.
There’s a moment early on in the story, as August is just beginning to fall in love with her girls, when she sees her mother in one of them. It’s because the girl is sad, but August is so wrapped up in her own grief that she can’t quite make the empathetic leap to see why. That moment is what clinches things for August, what links her to her group irrevocably, in an achingly lovely passage that captures Woodson’s spare, elegant language:
Our mother was sad-eyed and long-limbed like my father, with graceful hands that always seemed to be reaching for something or someone. When Clyde died, those hands slowed, lifted away from her body less often, rarely reached for us.
The first time I watched Angela’s pale fingers curl into a fist, I thought of my mother. Light dappled cars, our shoes, the bright gray sidewalk. Angela had been dancing, her leg lifting into an arabesque, her long fingers extending out in front of her. Then just as quickly, she pulled her arms in, her hands closing, her eyebrows twisting with such ferocity, I took a step away from her. What? I said. What is it? But Angela just shrugged, shoved her hands into her pockets, and shook her head. I wanted to ask, Where did your hands go, Angela? I wanted to tell her that when her fingers were still like that, my mother reappeared.
Another Brooklyn finds its poetry in what we project onto one another, in what we say to cover up the things we cannot say. It’s an elegant fever dream of a book, one that will haunt you after you finish it.