Pub. date: January 1st, 2018
Publisher: Little A Books
Thanks so much to Netgalley and Little A Books for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Plot: Penelope Grand is a young black failing artist who moves back home from Pittsburg to take care of her ailing father, Ralph. Her old neighborhood has been gentrified and taken over by affluent white people, and her mother Mirella left them to return to the Dominican Republic. So when Penny moves into the attic of the wealthy Harpers, she hopes for some semblance of family again. But a postcard arrives from Mirella, who is seeking reconciliation, and Penny’s world is once again turned upside down as old wounds are reopened, secrets are spilled, and she sets on a path of self-discovery.
It is the mark of a good book that has you still thinking about it days after you’ve finished reading it, and Halsey Street certainly fits the bill. For what comes across as a simple plot, Coster has by no means presented us with a simple novel. Layers upon layers upon layers are available for the reader’s contemplation.
The novel’s told from the perspective of both the Grand women- Penny and Mirella. Penny is a millennial who is flawed, vulnerable, and pragmatic. From her perspective, we are witness to a changed Brooklyn, the very real effects of gentrification- in the houses, the murals, the schools, the walls, her disdain for the mother that abandoned her, while Ralph Grand keeps his home as a shrine, unchanged from when she’d left it, while he drinks his days away hoping for Mirella to return. Her vulnerability is seen in her yearning and interactions when she stays with the Harpers, seeking connection and love. Through Mirella’s eyes we see how she and Ralph met, the changes in their relationship as Ralph focused on his record store, her gradually deteriorating relationship with Penny, how she felt in Brooklyn and the events that led to her departure, and her life in DR and how she makes it her own without being an extension of somebody else’s life. When Mirella writes to Penny seeking reconciliation, Penny is not immediately forgiving, a lot of stuff comes up for the both of them (together and separately), and we get to see where both women choose to go from there.
Coster has portrayed gentrification as a metaphor for broken families, and her execution of this is what makes this novel so phenomenal. You see it in Penny’s observations of the neighborhood, the school she teaches at, the rich white Harpers who are her landlord, and Ralph, who is a relic of old Brooklyn. She brings nuance into the conversation by inserting conversations of race, gender, and class- in Mirella’s chapters we see how she felt that Ralph and his friends never saw her as equal, and how her opinions on art and music and such were never taken seriously. Coster;s narrative power comes through also in her demonstrations of gentrification and its effects rather than statements of it. For instance, there’s a particular scene where Penny meets a classic white-pro-gentrifier Marty, who makes a statement about the neighborhood being a “blank canvas” with a plethora of possibilities, to which Penny rails back with a poignant speech on the literal erasure of the neighborhood and its systematic removal of working-class black people.
Halsey Street is an evocative and thought-provoking novel, one that will keep you thinking for days, and Coster is a fresh and talented voice. The writing complexity with a seemingly simple plot make this novel an absolute standout piece of literary fiction, and I’m looking forward to read more of her work in the future. Do not miss out on this one.