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Brass: A Novel Hardcover – January 23, 2018
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“Full of humor, love, and empathy, Brass is a stunner of a debut, making us excited for all still to come from Aliu.”—Nylon
“Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town.”—The Millions
“In mordant, biting prose, [Xhenet Aliu] interweaves the stories of a mother and a daughter living in a fading Connecticut town they both hopelessly long to escape from.”—HuffPost
“Xhenet Aliu’s bright and brash debut novel bursts forth with fearless wit and a take-no-prisoners attitude. . . . This is not a voice you’ve heard before. . . . . Brass is a unique twist on a mother-daughter story as well as an immigrant’s tale, with reflections on abandonment, dreams, disappointment and the kind of resilience it takes to endure, despite all odds.”—BookPage
“Rage and hilarity form a dynamic symbiosis in Aliu’s debut novel, a stinging mother-and-daughter duet. . . . Aliu is spectacularly funny and deeply insightful. With all-the-way-live characters, vigorous observation, combative dialogue, bravado metaphors, and ninja parsing of social class, immigrant struggles, bad behavior, and stubborn hope, Aliu has created a boldly witty and astute inquiry into the nature-versus-nurture debate, the inheritance of pain, and the dream of transcendence.”—Booklist (starred review)
“This glimmering debut novel reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds. . . . [Xhenet] Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit. Her characters are nuanced and real, capable of taking risks, making mistakes, and growing in unexpected ways. Aliu’s writing is polished and precise, bringing her characters glowingly to life.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Striking first novel . . . This is a captivating, moving story of drastic measures, failed schemes, and the loss of innocence.”—Publishers Weekly
“Deftly written in a style that is evocative of time and place, this universal story of the search for home is well translated into the blue-collar world of Elsie and Lulu.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“The unforgettable mother and daughter at the center of Brass are as bright and tough as the metal itself, and Xhenet Aliu depicts their parallel journeys with equal parts grit and tenderness. Brass is a fierce, big-hearted, unflinching debut.”—Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere
“Xhenet Aliu is ferociously talented. She’s written a story so scathingly honest with characters so perfectly real, it left me breathless with admiration. There is no false sentiment here, no misplaced word, just a novel that pulses with a restless energy, a novel that pulses with life.”—Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans
About the Author
Xhenet Aliu’s debut fiction collection, Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Barcelona Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an MLIS from The University of Alabama. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, she was born to an Albanian father and a Lithuanian American mother. She now lives in Athens, Georgia, and works as an academic librarian.
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The book is beautifully written. The pace unfolds quickly. In the early stages, I was caught up in the characters and wanted to see how they'd turn out. As the book progressed, though, the story felt claustrophobic and hopeless. It's as if all the characters suffered from learned helplessness. I was hoping someone would take a strong action to turn the course of their lives. I didn't find myself admiring anyone; I wanted to shake them and say, "Do something! Take risks! Get out of there!"
If you like books aptly described as "gritty," you'll probably like this book. If you prefer more proactive heroines, then you may be willing to overlook these characters and enjoy the solid writing and deft pacing...or not.
“Brass” is the story of a mother and her daughter, two women who struggle to survive and whose life paths have been so similar that they could very well be one. Elsie works at the Betsy Ross Diner in a dying New England mill town. When Bashkim, a married line cook, pays her the compliment that she is beautiful, Elsie envisions a future with him. As life deals her one blow after another, Elsie realizes that Bashkim will never divorce his wife and that she must raise their daughter Luljeta alone. Luljeta grows up thinking her father deserted her mother and is now dead. She plans to further her education and leave their small town life. However, she will also become pregnant and have to face the possibility of life as a single mother. The novel moves through her story until she learns and accepts the truth about Bashkim and about herself and her mother’s relationship.
Xhenet Aliu chooses a unique way to narrate this novel. Chapters alternate between Elsie and Luljeta’s stories. Written in the first person, Elsie’s chapters seem intimate and the developments immediate. Luljeta’s portions of the novel, spoken by an unknown actor, detail her story as if she were having it reviewed for her. The narrator reminds Luljeta of both the good and the bad events in her life and the part she played in those situations. The secondary characters are also interesting, but none of the characters in “Brass” are especially likeable or despicable. They are individuals who struggle to survive and move forward.
The desperation the characters feel; the hope with which Elsie and Luljeta view the future; and their love for one another may affect you. While you may internalize the women’s desperation and not want to keep reading, you also internalize their hope and that emotional response will compel you to continue. This, too, demonstrates the power of Xhenet Aliu’s writing. This is a fine novel, but not one that is an easy read or about entertaining subject matter.
I think every state in the U.S. has at least one city like Waterbury that human voices expel in a whisper, head hung low, in an attempt to downplay its sad reputation. In fact, the city just landed one of the top 50 spots in an article highlighting the top worst cities in the U.S. The article’s Waterbury description is below.
“The typical Waterbury household earns only $37,877 a year, about $33,500 less than the median income across Connecticut as a whole. Goods and services are about 17% more expensive in the Waterbury area than they are nationwide, and when accounting for the high cost of living, the median household income in the city is only worth about $32,512. Homeowners in the area face the additional financial burden of a high tax rate. Typical homeowners pay about 3.7% of their home’s value in property taxes each year, the fifth highest share of any U.S. city and more than three times the 1.2% median property tax rate nationwide.
Pervasive joblessness underscores the area's poor economic conditions. Some 9.3% of the city’s workforce is unemployed, well above the 5.3% U.S. unemployment rate.”
Waterbury is the perfect setting for Brass not only because it grounds the story in a painful place of reality, it depicts the theme of the story through powerful metaphor. As much as the main characters dream of escape, their Waterbury World represses their true potentials. Anyone who has ever dreamed big dreams in a town restrained from economical lack knows all too well of the ominous world the author paints. That said, it is a rare occurrence when an author can portray a mural of the downtrodden and execute it with a spiritual force and eloquence that remains with the reader long after the final page of the book is read.
The parallel narratives of the mother and illegitimate child, who is now a 17-year-old freedom seeker, is pure genius. The juxtaposition between the two women is a fascinating journey into the psychology of human behavior and a dive into the human heart. The author fuses character and plot seamlessly, and the journey is a delightful ride that feels like wide open space on a sweet Sunday afternoon car ride.
Although the author Xhenet Aliu has a penchant for weighty sentences, she is a master wordsmith and proves that short sentences aren’t always best to convey the point. I highly recommend Brass.
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Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the...Read more