In 2014, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for young adult literature for an unusual book: a novel in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," about a young girl moving with her family from a Southern town to New York. She returns to similar territory – this time, writing for adults -- in "Another Brooklyn."
The novel traces the childhood of August and her three best friends in 1970s Brooklyn, framed by her return to the city after a 20-year absence. It passes to its readers "the weight of growing up 'Girl' in Brooklyn," much in the same way August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi share that burden until tragedy and betrayal separate them.
Adult August, an anthropologist, returns to New York to bury her father and runs into an old friend, Sylvia, on the subway. Already fighting the pull of memories, August succumbs to reliving her childhood and how much Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, meant to her.
In 1973, when her mother began to hear the voice of her dead brother, August's father left their home in SweetGrove, Tenn., and brought them to Brooklyn. Through August's flashbacks, we learn about her transition from girlhood into young womanhood, with her three best friends filling the hole of her missing mother.
On the first page, August warns the reader: "I know now that what is tragic isn't the moment. It is the memory." Memory, as it's threaded throughout the novel, is both permanent and changing, unreliable yet indelible.
The girls all try to figure out who they are through their mothers: "We came by way of our mothers' memories." August holds on to memories of her mother yet her mother breaks under the pressure of grief and tries to relive memories of her own beloved brother, killed during the Vietnam War. August turns the trauma of losing her mother and uncle into a career of studying various cultures' rituals of death.
The many layers of "Another Brooklyn" have the poetic and vivid strength of "Brown Girl Dreaming." The effects of the Vietnam War on black families, absent mothers, predatory men, religion as escape, white flight and gentrification, the epidemics of drug abuse and poverty, and the search for belonging all make their way into the novel without overcrowding. The novel reads like a series of prose poems, quick blocks of text separated by frequent spacing, which allows the reader to absorb the significance of each transition and have time to breathe before tackling August's next memory.
Tragedy ultimately pulls at the tight weave of friendship, and the girls separate and fall apart. Adversity hits Angela first, then betrayal rocks Sylvia and August, before Gigi arguably suffers the worst, traumatized by an assault at age 12. August, even in adulthood, remains frustrated by Gigi's outcome: "But we remained on Earth. Believing ourselves wingless."
"Another Brooklyn" is not another "New York is the greatest city in the world" story. It's about the fact that women are stronger together as friends than apart or as enemies. August's mother tells her women aren't to be trusted: "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." But August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi protected each other, at one point saving money to buy razor blades and teaching each other how to use them for future attacks.
As they grew older and began developing figures that attracted boys and men alike, they stayed together: "The four of us together weren't something they understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their breasts, praying for invisibility."
"Another Brooklyn" joins the tradition of studying female friendships and the families we create when our own isn't enough, like that of Toni Morrison's "Sula," Tayari Jones' "Silver Sparrow" and "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name" by Audre Lorde. Woodson uses her expertise at portraying the lives of children to explore the power of memory, death and friendship. Even when what was good turns sour, it can fuel the rest of our lives, in ways we never think to acknowledge.
Perkins is a freelance writer based in her hometown of Nashville.
Amistad: 192 pp., $22.99