In Waterbury, Conn., diner waitresses refill coffee cups for customers trapped in the shadows of abandoned brass factories that loom across the street. They fall in love with men who promise the world before being faced with the same realities as their neighbors, immigrants expecting a better life that never comes. In Waterbury, hope — the chance to dream — is in short supply.
Xhenet Aliu grew up in Waterbury, and she sets her striking debut novel Brass in the same place, bringing its charm and despair to life through prose best described as lyrically gritty. Aliu is not a particularly sentimental writer. Elsie, her 18-year-old diner-waitress protagonist, speaks to readers with the kind of caustic toughness that sounds juvenile and wise at the same time. She’s a teenager desperate for escape, too, which leads to some rash decisions: She meets a man who promises the world, falls under his spell, and before long finds herself pregnant and alone.
With Brass, Aliu has introduced herself as a major new literary voice, coming off of her similarly excellent collection Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories. She skirts familiar territory here, telling stories of deadbeat fathers abandoning their responsibilities and of the crippling economic conditions in towns powered by a dying manufacturing sector. And yet there’s still something so fresh here, in the way Aliu draws her heroines with such wit, grace, and complexity.
Indeed, the novel expands magnificently as it introduces a parallel narrative: Elsie’s now-teenage daughter, Luljeta, heading down a similar path, littered with regrets. It reads as if Elsie, as an adult, is wistfully telling Luljeta’s story in the second person, against the backdrop of Waterbury’s broken dreams, addressing her with the cynicism of someone who’s lived it and the warmth of someone who wishes against it. The shift makes for a shatteringly intimate mother-daughter tribute, a love letter brimming with pain. A–