I’d not come across Jamel Brinkley’s writing before I spotted Witness on NetGalley. It’s a collection of short stories all set in New York which, regular readers won’t be surprised to hear, was what attracted me to it. I’ve picked out my favourite pieces below, beginning with the opening coming-of-age story.
In the image of our family that I hold most dear there are tiny spatters and slashes everywhere, but you have to get very close to the canvas to see them.
Blessed Deliverance sees a group of five friends growing apart brought briefly together by an animal rescue shelter, ending in sudden moment of self-knowledge for one of them. In The Let-out an encounter between a striking middle-aged woman and the young man she makes a beeline for on museum open night proves deeply unsettling for him. The Happiest House on Union Street sees eight-year-old Beverly listening to her father arguing with his identical twin brother about his neglect of her, a long running row which soon turns into what’s to be done with the house they grew up in. In Bartow Station, a summer fling sees a man unburden himself to a woman seeking an amusing diversion who’s outraged by what she thinks he expects of her despite her invitation to intimacy. The titular story sees a man watch his sister’s hasty marriage flounder as she takes up a scattershot black history reading programme until the reason behind her odd behaviour is shockingly revealed.
The bread was supposed to be worthy of headlines, but to Gloria it was more like yesterday’s news.
Brinkley’s stories are peopled with characters living in areas of New York, once rundown and worse, whose houses are now sought after as their neighbourhoods gentrify, happily for some but not for others. As the title suggests, narrators are often to the side watching events unfold or remembering them, reassessing and occasionally experiencing epiphanies. Through their experiences, Brinkley explores themes of racism – covert and violently overt – family and change, framing them within absorbing stories. Not all the pieces worked for me – Brinkley’s style is a little wordy for my taste – but it’s an interesting collection, certainly enough to make me investigate more of his writing.
Fourth Estate Books: London 9780008538637 240 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)