Brown Girl, Brownstones, by Paule Marshall
Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story about Selina Boyce, daughter of two warring Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn circa WW2. She is boisterous and lively, wanting nothing better than to spend long summer days in Prospect Park running, skinning her knees and laughing with her best friend. But she is not altogether carefree. When her father learns that he has inherited land back in Barbados, and her mother learns that he would rather save up to build a house there on the island and move back rather than pay off the mortgage on the house in Brooklyn so that they can be property owners like their most prosperous neighbors, all hell breaks loose–and Selina’s loyalty to each of them is severely tested. She sympathizes more with her kind but irresponsible father, yet she may have more in common with her difficult, volatile mother than she cares to admit.
As Selina grows older and, she thinks, more estranged from her family–including her sister who, in her opinion and unlike herself, is the model of a good, proper Barbadian girl who will settle down early with an upwardly mobile man to raise a family and perhaps move one day to Crown Heights–she struggles to find her niche in her community and in U.S. culture at large. Her mother’s materialistic obsession with becoming a property owner disgusts her and her cultural assimilation feels to Selina like a betrayal of both her own identity and of her father. There is a conceptual rift here between house and home, and for Selina the two can not ever be reconciled by the purchase of a Brooklyn brownstone. But when Selina finally sets herself on a truth-seeking path of her own design, she finds unexpected support. And when she does, she begins to understand, if not agree with, the import and appeal of the values and aspirations that her community shares.
There are some really interesting scenes here of Selina sitting in on a meeting of the Association of Barbadian Homeowners, a group with which her mother is very active, and also a sermon by Father Peace in Harlem that she goes to with her father. The contrast is illustrative of her emotionally conflicted family life; both experiences are disillusioning for her, and both are settings I wasn’t expecting and found really fascinating in and of themselves.
There were a few moments toward the end of the book where I was bothered, though, by homophobic jeering and gender policing on the part of both Selina and her lover, Clive. Selina makes fun of the “fairy” youth leader at the Association of Barbadian Homeowners she attended, and Clive warns her about falling in with Bohemian circles in which women “act like men” and such, as if to say: your critique of your mother’s way of life is cool and all, just don’t, ya know, take your radicalism that far. Like those people do. Or something. I’m not really sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything to the narrative and it didn’t sit with me very well in any case.
I was also bothered sometimes by hasty transitions in Marshall’s writing. Sometimes things just seemed to happen out of nowhere, and not always with reason. It was confusing at times, and a bit disruptive. It lead to me feeling lost more than a few times.
Marshall deals with a lot of interesting themes in this book, and I’m glad I read it for that reason. For other reasons previously mentioned, though, it was mostly a so-so read.