Thursday, February 1, 2018

Book Review: "Brass" by Xhenet Aliu

"...often the love your mother gives feels like it's being rejected by your body, as if you're the B-positive recipient of an A-negative blood donation."

The often-complicated relationship between mothers and daughters has been fodder for literature, movies, and music for many, many years. What is it about this type of relationship that can bring such fierce love, friendship, and loyalty, as well as resentment, anger, and frustration, often simultaneously?

Obviously, those questions are somewhat lost on me, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading about the dynamics of these relationships! Xhenet Aliu's first novel, Brass, examines the sometimes unfulfilling, tenuous bonds between a woman, her mother, and her daughter, and the result is moving and tremendously compelling.

Elsie is an unmotivated high school graduate unsure if she'll ever amount to anything much. Waitressing at the Betsy Ross Diner in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut, her mother is a frustrated alcoholic who has pretty much left Elsie and her younger sister to raise themselves, with occasional meddling. Constantly living hand-to-mouth, it's not hard to dream of something better, but she doesn't have many expectations in that regard.

When she meets Bashkim, a line cook who escaped the political unrest in his native Albania to work at his relatives' diner, she is drawn to his weary worldliness, and finds his anger, as well as his simultaneous bravado and despair, immensely magnetic. Her grandparents immigrated from Lithuania, so she thinks she understands Bashkim's situation and that of his coworkers. She knows he has a wife back in Albania, but she doesn't care, and it's not long before she has fallen in love with him.

"I didn't want to think about how it was unfair that some people had it so much worse when I'd already committed to fixating on people who had it so much better."

Elsie finds herself pregnant, and although Bashkim professes happiness for their situation, and promises to take care of her and the baby, she isn't completely sure that's what she wants. As he struggles with the troubles back home and what to do with his wife, Elsie realizes what she wants more than anything is a ticket out of Waterbury, away from the life she has had to date, and wonders whether Bashkim will be the one to help her achieve that.

Seventeen years later, Elsie's daughter Luljeta dreams of escaping her Connecticut hometown, just as her mother once did (although she doesn't know that). But when her plans to attend NYU don't materialize, she can't fathom the thought of spending her adult life with her mother, with not enough money or opportunities to enjoy life. For the first time, she starts to wonder what her mother has been hiding all these years where her father is concerned, and she's determined to uncover the truth.

When she finds out the truth is far from what she's been told through the years, she decides to find him, and see if perhaps that relationship might bring her more joy and promise than the one she has with Elsie. She doesn't know what to expect, and in fact, doesn't even know how to get there, but she knows she must do it on her own.

"She could have explained that he was a frightened man, and a frightened man, like a frightened dog, was a potentially dangerous thing. She could have said those things instead of repeating, if the topic ever came up, that your father was simply an asshole, the same term she applies to people who don't matter at all, like guys who cut her off in traffic and Bill O'Reilly. But if she lied about where he was, who's to say she wasn't lying about what he was? What if he wasn't just some asshole, and you weren't better off without him?"

Switching narration between Elsie and Luljeta, between past and present, Brass is a moving account of the sacrifices made for love and parenthood, and how often we ignore the signs that what we're running toward may be no more appealing than what we're running from. Instead of giving one side of the story, Aliu gives us both sides, which really deepens the poignancy of the narrative.

While at times the book moved a little slower than I would have liked, I thought Aliu was a terrific storyteller, and I was completely drawn into Elsie and Luljeta's stories. These are women accustomed to not having control of their lives, so there were many times when I wanted to shake them into action, into saying what needed to be said.

No one relationship is perfect, and it requires an equal amount of give and take to make it work. I'd imagine where mothers and daughters are concerned, finding that balance may be difficult for a while, if not forever. Brass is a fascinating look at two women whose lives need that balance, and who realize they need others to help them, too.

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