By Jennifer Ward
As we approach Thanksgiving and the holidays, I wanted to write about a novel I read that focuses a lot on the intricacies of family relationships. When I pick up a new book and begin reading, a few things I look for are strong characters, a compelling setting, and poignant themes. Three years ago, I stumbled upon a beautifully-written book with all these qualities and more.
As a woman born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I was immediately drawn to Naima Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street. I had a feeling I would love her book, and I was right. Her contemporary fiction story introduces Penelope Grand, a young woman moving from Philadelphia back to her old neighborhood—Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. It’s an emotional journey with an ending I did not expect.
Coster’s protagonist, Penelope, is a talented, struggling artist looking for success and her place in the world. She finds herself working in a less desirable position as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. Like other aspects of her life, her temporary job is not what she envisioned for herself upon graduating college. Her relationships with both of her parents are strained, one living in Brooklyn, the other abroad. Perhaps it is the pain of her distanced relationship with her mother that I related to most.
Penelope returns to Brooklyn to help her ill father. Upon her arrival, the neighborhood of her youth is almost unrecognizable due to gentrification. The setting serves as a metaphor for the belonging the native residents once had and now long for. Penelope rents a room in the attic of the Harper’s brownstone, a few blocks from her father. When she first moved into their house, she walked down a long hallway of closed doors, further suggesting the plight of those underprivileged. Even the tiny room she occupies also hints at the marginalization experienced by the area’s long-time residents.
The Brooklyn setting is almost a character itself with its beautiful culture, way of life, and values so deeply ingrained in its residents. As the neighborhood changes, the setting becomes such a crucial part of her story that it could not have the same depth without it. Coster has the ability to connect with audiences who have felt the impact of gentrification in Brooklyn or other large cities across the United States.
Penelope’s entire life seems to float in this constant state of loneliness and limbo, perhaps making this story so nuanced and relatable. As I continued to read, I felt sad throughout a good portion of the novel, but I also felt a range of other emotions. Her struggle to succeed in a world of inequality is unmistakable. She isn’t perfect, and neither is the world she lives in, but she’s a strong woman who doesn’t give up, managing to care for herself and others around her with dignity and respect.
Through the telling of a family saga, Halsey Street reveals an important theme of forgiveness. The past and present moments of Penelope’s relationships with her parents are woven, revealing their complexity, and depth. The act of forgiveness might be one of the most challenging things for us to understand and embrace. To have it is truly a gift. Through her difficult journey, I saw a realistic and honest depiction of life, and the pain that comes with family conflict.
Another theme I found in Halsey Street is the human need to belong. You don’t have to be a Brooklyn-born resident to know what that feels like—it’s something that is part of all of us. Whether it is belonging to a small group of friends, a church, a team, or something bigger, the need to connect with others and feel important is a universal desire. For the native residents of Penelope’s neighborhood, gentrification not only took their homes and businesses but also their sense of pride and belonging. As a reader, I felt it too. Halsey Street sheds light on the importance of having people stay rooted in their communities and its bearing on Penelope, the people of Brooklyn, and her readers.
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