Review: Halsey Street by Naima Coster

Untitled design.pngDebut author Naima Coster has written a breathtaking novel that navigates emotional minefields with realism and grace. An early contender for book of the year.

 

Set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn, Naima Coster’s freshly rendered family saga explores how familial ties fray and bind again in tumultuous circumstances. Penelope Grand, former artist and current waitress, reluctantly returns home from Pittsburgh to care for her ailing father, Ralph, who lives secluded in his house on Halsey Street. Penelope’s discontented mother, Mirella, abandoned Ralph after an accident that almost crippled him, returning to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to live the life she always dreamed of. But Ralph’s been unhappy for some time, a ghost in a shell since even before his tumble down the stairs, when his iconic record store closed. Penelope’s return doesn’t serve as the restorative act she intended. Indeed, perhaps their fissures run too deep.

Penelope sublets a place a few streets from her childhood home, but this isn’t the Brooklyn she remembers. Her landlords are new to the block, having just moved from the West Village, and they are perfect embodiment’s of the shift in populace. The Harpers are a young, white, wealthy family, as equally attracted to the neighbourhood because of its history as they are wary of it. Penelope has always felt a deep sense of dislocation within herself, and it’s a gut-punch to realise her home will never again be what it once was. Still, for the sake of her father, Penelope commits to her new life in Brooklyn, until a postcard from her estranged mother forces her to deal with a past she’d tried to forget.

Halsey Street alternates between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving back and forth in time, charting the history of the Grand family, from Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the inaugural days of their marriage, Penelope’s dismal freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with her mother to the DR, and in the present day, their final shot at reconciliation.

Coster’s psychological acuity belies her status as a debut author. Halsey Street is empathetic but never sentimental, and dares to probe the dynamics of a fractured family, whose crevices can’t be blamed on a single person, rather shared amongst its three members. There were moments when I loathed these characters and their selfishness, but of course, it’s those infallibilities that make them so relatable.  This is a rich and layered story, and the only disappointing thing about it is that, at time of writing, there are no plans for an Australian release.

ISBN: 9781503941175
ISBN-10: 1503941175
Format: Hardback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Little A
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Publish Date: 1-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

9781472150882Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, returns after a seven year sabbatical from our bookshelves with her first work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach, which perhaps lacks the unequivocal uniqueness of its award-winning predecessor, but nonetheless displays her gifts as one of today’s most elegant and versatile storytellers.

Manhattan Beach opens during the Great Depression with almost-twelve-years-old Anna Kerrigan accompanying her father to the house of New York gangster Dexter Styles, where the two men talk conspiratorially while Anna and Style’s daughter play. Unbeknownst to Anna, Styles will have a significant impact on her life.

Smash-cut to almost a decade later and Anna’s father Eddie has disappeared, leaving Anna, her mother, and her ailing, disabled sister to fend for themselves in the midst of World War II. Anna is the family’s sole provider for the family, breaking gender barriers by working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as the first female diver; a most perilous occupation. By chance she visits a nightclub owned by Dexter Styles, and when the two re-connect, Anna digs into her father’s ambiguous past, and the events that lead to his disappearance.

Egan’s irresistibly engaging characters and crystalline prose augment an otherwise conventional narrative, which forsakes much of its tension early on, when it answers the novel’s burning question: what happened to Eddie Kerrigan? Therefore Manhattan Beach rips along not because of a central mystery, but the often heartbreaking internal struggles of its characters seeking to transcend their station in life. The novel deftly illuminates issues of class, race and gender, as well as wartime mortality, Egan’s penchant for arduous research coming to the fore as she details now-archaic diving equipment and experiences.

Rich with colourful historical detail, Manhattan Beach is a masterly examination of a monumental time in America’s history.

Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Corsair
RRP: $32.99
ISBN: 9781472150882
ISBN-10: 1472150880
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 3rd October 2017

Review: Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

9780749020729.jpgSuzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch has been in my reading stack since its publication last year, but it was only recently, during the New Year long weekend, when there was less pressure to read a forthcoming release, that I got the chance to dip into it. Honestly, I hadn’t heard much about Rindell’s second novel, but the fact it’s set in the cut-throat world of publishing in late 1950s New York was enough to pique my interest. And as it turns out, it’s more than a homage to the beatnik generation; it’s an incredibly poignant and evocative tale about the price we pay going after our dreams.

The novel revolves around the lives of three young people trying to make their mark in the world of publishing in post-war New York. Miles Tillman is a bright young African American who is graduating from Columbia University, and is is determined to write his first novel when he gets sidetracked into a search for his dead father’s wartime diary. Eden Katz is a Jewish girl from Indiana with dreams of becoming an editor. And Cliff Nelson is the son of a famous publisher, desperate to become the next Hemingway, but easily distracted by, well, everything and anything. Their lives bisect each other’s in various ways throughout the book as their aspirations intersect.

Three-Martini Lunch is a tremendous novel, which captures the lavishness and inhibitions of late-1950s New York. As envious as I am of those times, to a degree, when long, luxurious lunches were a mainstay of the publishing industry, Rindell’s book also serves as a stark reminder of the sexism, casual racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism that was rampant at the time. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

More importantly, this is a novel in which the main characters feel genuine. Not always likable, but always relatable. I was absolutely enamored and enthralled by their stories.

ISBN: 9780749020729
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Allison & Busby
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publish Date: 19-May-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

StroutElizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is a delectably quiet, understated, but powerful novella. It is about a woman unravelling the tapestry of her life, with particular emphasis on the five days she spent with her estranged mother by her side during a nine week hospital stay. Don’t let its page count fool you; this is a story of great depth and plenty of nuance, brought to life through Strout’s flawless, elegiac prose.
The novel is about relationships, predominantly between Lucy and her mother, but also with her father, a professor from college, a neighbour, a former writing teacher, the doctor who cared for her during her stay in hospital, and many more. Strout exposes the complexity of these relations, unveiling the dark undercurrent that runs between some, divulging parochial love affairs and unjustified, one-sided friendships and affiliations founded on falsehoods. But whereas other writers might do this clunkily, with long-winded passages of meandering lyricism, Strout’s narrative maintains its distinct poetry without the unnecessary accoutrements.

My Name is Lucy Barton delivers hard, emotional truths. Honest and affecting, it’s a real treat, and achieves more in its 200 pages than most other novels you’ll read this year. This is storytelling at its deceptively-simplest and finest.

ISBN: 9780241248775
Format: Hardback (205mm x 134mm x 21mm)
Pages: 208
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

 

Tonight I’m Missing Home

It started with a song: Swedish House Mafia’s Don’t You Worry Child. Not my usual jam, but my iPhone was on shuffle, and tuned to my Running Playlist after an unconvincing 9km jog around Prospect Park this evening. In the rain, no less. Humph.

Running July

I downloaded the song the day before I ran my first half-marathon in September last year. I needed a playlist, and Robbie William’s Greatest Hits wasn’t going to cut it – – although Millennium and Bodies made it on. Naturally. Alas, there was no place for Feel, my patented Favorite Song of All Time. Still waiting for the right remix. It’ll come, I’m telling you; it’ll come.

Anyway, September 21, 2013: the day I ran my first half-marathon with best mate, Aveek. It started at Milsons Point and headed right over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. And I mean, right over. As in, they halt traffic and let the runners have their away. Amazing! See?

Running Bridge

And that song – –  Don’t You Worry Child – – started playing as I had this iconic view of Sydney, in all its morning glory.

So naturally, that sticks in my head, and resonates, and reminds me of home.

But more than that, the song reminds me of the night before, when Aveek and I stayed at a random backpackers hostel about a kilometer from the half-marathon starting point. There was the usual banter, you know, mate-to-mate chat. We went to bed early; had to be up at 5am, after all.

Nothing of note happened. I didn’t reveal my deepest, darkest secret to Aveek. He did not reveal his.

But for some reason, tonight, when I was running, and that song came on, my mind shifted back to that night. And of the afternoon after the run; sharing a 9am beer at the Sydney Opera House, exhausted as heck, and hungry. Man, we were hungry.

And that leads to other memories. Other runs, around home, my daily ritual; coming home, running more or less the same route, six nights a week. My second half marathon around Homebush; eating Chinese food the night before, with my parents. A mistake, let me tell you. And an earlier memory, running the City2Surf in August, with a bunch of mates, and the beers and banter afterwards.

Turns out one song is the key to unlocking the memories, and letting them flood.

So, tonight I miss home. The memories are returning thick and fast.

But I’m in New York now. Time to make some new ones.