Review by Emily Webber
Brass, Xhenet Aliu’s debut novel, is at its core a story about a mother and daughter, about delinquent dads, and the search for the American dream. The novel opens in the 90’s with Elsie, working at the Betsy Ross Diner in Connecticut, where she meets a line cook named Bashkim. He’s fled the chaos and violence of Albania in search of a better life. He’s older and married, but in America alone because his wife refuses to leave their home country. One of the first conversations between Elsie and Bashkim goes like this:
“You’re freezing,” he said. “Hell froze over. Your boyfriend picking you up?”
“My mother. I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Yes you do. I am your boyfriend.”
“I don’t know if your wife would like that,” I said.
“You don’t say anything about my wife. That’s rule number one.”
Rule number one. It was settled, then. We had our first rule before we have our first kiss, but for damn sure that was what made him my boyfriend. And it hurt for me to face that kind of truth, like seeing my ugly face on the video cameras on display in the front entrance at Sears, but I couldn’t wait for rule number two.
In this novel, women learn hard truths about their value and how different it is navigating the world as a woman. This first conversation indicates how Elsie’s relationship with Bashkim will play out. We know from the beginning that she will give birth to a daughter, not the coveted son Bashkim hopes for, and raise her alone. But even though the reader already knows these things, it is still compelling. In a scene where Elsie begins to understand that she will not be able to rely on Bashkim, she realizes:
I touched my belly, and the girls at work were right: I was huge, and I was tethered to this baby, literally of course, what with the umbilical cord and all, but also because I already had a lifetime of making up to do before she was even born.
In reading Elsie’s story, one gets to see a life unfold, and the payoff is the moment when Elsie finally meets her daughter. When she gives birth to her daughter, Elsie is transformed, and it is a dazzling scene. It is one of the many sparks of hope that Aliu delivers throughout the book.
The other part of this novel belongs to Elsie’s daughter, Luljeta, and takes place 17 years later. When Lulu’s story opens, she has just received a rejection letter from NYU. Lulu believed college was her ticket out of her hometown. But now that her plan will not be coming to fruition, she starts to look into her past for a way out. She is tired of not receiving answers from her mother about the father she has never known and she’s finally pushing up against the status quo she has always accepted:
And then it’s infuriating, your mother’s need for you, because it feels manipulative at worst and a little creepy at best. It’s not fair that you should serve as her primary motivation for getting out of bed in the morning, especially considering that you have no idea what the hell you want from your own life, other than to get out of this crap town and figure it out elsewhere.
Lulu’s voice is at times wise and funny, but also full of foolishness and innocence. I wished that she would be able to fully understand her mother’s love and the sacrifices she made for her, but Lulu is finding her own way and developing her own type of toughness against what the world gives.
Lulu’s chapters are told in the second person, and it works well, making the reader feel submerged in her life and connected with her. Elsie and Luljeta’s stories are told in alternate chapters, unfolding parallel to each other. Putting these two stories together is a smart move on Aliu’s part, and it makes each voice even more powerful. Telling the story in this way serves as a constant reminder that while we think we may know everything about those closest to us, we never have the full picture.
While the two main characters drive this novel, it is also very much about a place. The title comes from the fact that Waterbury, Connecticut was home to brass factories where Eastern European immigrants once sought work. I have briefly visited Connecticut, and it remains in my mind a place of large two-story houses set on rolling green hills and of picturesque seaside towns. Waterbury is not this place. It is the place of line cooks, single moms, factory workers – people trying to scrape together enough cash to make it through another day. Most of these characters are trying to find a way out. These are people used to hardship, as one exchange between the characters shows:
“I’ll be there in a second. I don’t feel too good,” I said.
“None of us feel good. Look around you. You think you’re supposed to feel good?”
It is hard not to feel empathy towards all the characters in this novel, even the ones like Bashkim, who make horrible choices. Many of these characters are escaping desperate situations and then arriving in America and facing the reality that their new life will simply hold a different kind of hardship. In one scene, Bashkim’s aunt jokes to Elsie that he very literally thought American streets were paved with gold before he came over. When Lulu meets this aunt later herself, she asks her if she thinks people found life better in America:
“Usually. It depends, you know, if you want it to be better. It was hard for some of the people who came over, because they thought you land here, boom, life is wonderful. They didn’t know you still had to work for it.” She shrugs. “Mostly everybody figured it out, but it’s hard at first. It’s hard to be a stranger anywhere, I guess.”
Aliu is in familiar territory here and her first book, a collection of short stories, Domesticated Wild Things, takes place in the same community and deals with many of the same themes. Her hometown is Waterbury. As a result, these characters, even the secondary ones, come across as very real and distinct.
The characters, the place, and how Aliu tells the story all make this novel compulsively readable. For all the hard truths of this book, Aliu gives us people who are trying to love each other as best as they can while also trying to survive. Aliu doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of how people talk, and the result is that the characters come across very real for better and worse. No one in this book is perfect. They are all still trying to figure it out, and so this story doesn’t end neatly for anyone and doesn’t give the reader all the answers. But you will not regret looking in on these lives, and through these characters, Aliu shows us that we aren’t as different from each other as we sometimes might think.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, and Sick Pilgrim. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. To read more by her, visit https://emilyannwebber.wordpress.com/.