A mother, a daugh­ter

Par­al­lel nar­ra­tives re­veal the com­plex­i­ties of a mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING & ARTS - By Becca J.G. God­win Becca.God­win@ajc.com

Par­al­lel nar­ra­tives re­veal com­plex re­la­tion­ship in “Brass,”

Xhenet Aliu’s de­but novel ‘Brass” be­gins through the 18-year-old eyes of Elsie Kuzav­inas, a de­spon­dent wait­ress sav­ing up her money for “the wicked coupe that was go­ing to drive me out of Water­bury so fast I wouldn’t even bother to burn the skid marks that would mark my good­bye.” Alas, her grand plan to get out of “maybe the crap­pi­est place on earth” – a small Con­necti­cut town full of aban­doned brass fac­to­ries – be­comes per­ma­nently foiled when she catches the eye of her co-worker at the Betsy Ross Diner, Bashkim.

The Al­ba­nian line cook, with eyes “so blue they were al­most black, as if the grills in the kitchen had singed a per­ma­nent re­flec­tion of the bu­taneblue flame for­ever lick­ing up un­der his chin,” swears to Al­lah that Elsie is the most beau­ti­ful girl he’s ever seen. Bashkim teaches her to drive his stick shift Pon­tiac Fiero be­fore they, as she puts it, date in the front seat for weeks. He prom­ises her he won’t be flip­ping ham­burg­ers for­ever; he’ll even get her an apart­ment in Man­hat­tan one day, if that’s what she wants. (If “Brass” had a theme song, it would be Tracy Chap­man’s fer­vent “Fast Car.”)

Elsie, the self-dep­re­cat­ing grand­daugh­ter of Lithua­nian im­mi­grants, knows Bashkim has a wife back in the old coun­try, the same place he fled to es­cape Al­ba­nian dic­ta­tor En­ver Hoxha. Be­cause he’s a mar­ried man, she also knows how her re­la­tion­ship with him will end. But in 1996, she was most con­cerned with get­ting a ticket out of her home – which she shares with an al­co­holic mom and a younger sis­ter with a bad tic – and se­cur­ing “an epic sort of love you get tat­tooed across your fore­arm with­out think­ing twice about it.” They wind up living in the “glo­ri­fied at­tic” of an apart­ment, where they share one bath towel and sleep on an air mat­tress.

Once the reader is fully in­vested in the sto­ry­line of these two very flawed and com­pelling char­ac­ters, the Athens­based au­thor does an about­face, swing­ing the bright spotlight away from them and 17 years into the fu­ture. The per­spec­tive of Elsie’s daugh­ter Lul­jeta oc­cu­pies al­ter­nate chap­ters, the girl’s nar­ra­tion tech­ni­cally told in sec­ond-per­son but ef­fec­tively work­ing as first­per­son: “Your whole life was sup­posed to be about prov­ing that you’re as un­like your loser tran­sient fa­ther as pos­si­ble.”

Lul­jeta, “the lat­est in a line of father­less of daugh­ters,” ex­hibits many of the same qual­i­ties as her mother. She’s ex­ces­sively self-aware, tough­ened by a hard-knock life and har­bors a deep de­sire to leave Water­bury for Man­hat­tan. Un­like her mom, that dream doesn’t die by get­ting preg­nant. In­stead, it seems im­pos­si­ble when she re­ceives a New York Uni­ver­sity re­jec­tion let­ter in the mid­dle of a school day.

Lul­jeta’s de­spair is com­pounded when she gets into her first fight that same day, re­sult­ing in both a sus­pen­sion and be­ing able to name a feel­ing she’d pre­vi­ously thought was con­fu­sion: rage. As her mom ar­gues with the as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal, Lul­jeta won­ders what hap­pened to the man re­spon­si­ble for her thick hair and “the well of rage that you have just be­gun to lower your bucket into and drink from.” (An­other fit­ting an­them for “Brass” could be John Mayer’s in­struc­tive “Daugh­ters.”)

Elsie has told Lul­jeta that her fa­ther went back to Al­ba­nia, and that she’s bet­ter off with­out him. Re­gard­less, she be­gins to search for him at none other than the Betsy Ross Diner, due to its lo­cal rep­u­ta­tion as Lit­tle Al­ba­nia. When Yl­lka, Bashkim’s rel­a­tive who still works at the diner, hears Lul­jeta’s unique name, she turns green. Yl­lka is a stand­out per­son­al­ity in the small cast of char­ac­ters; she’s gruff but her heart bleeds for fam­ily.

An­other con­nec­tion Lul­jeta makes at the diner that night be­comes key in her dad-find­ing mis­sion. She thinks Ah­met likes that she’s “all things in one … a half­sie who can pull off who­r­ish Amer­i­can neck­lines but is prob­a­bly still a nice Al­ba­nian vir­gin.” Af­ter Yl­lka lets on that Lul­jetta’s fa­ther ended up in Texas, she be­gins to feel be­trayed by her mom. She con­se­quently de­cides to ma­nip­u­late Ah­met, a man with a fast car, to take her on a road trip.

The par­al­lel nar­ra­tives tech­nique al­lows the reader to watch Lul­jeta’s search for her fa­ther de­velop along­side the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of her par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship, which speeds up as Elsie’s preg­nancy ad­vances. It’s a ter­rific way to show­case the some­times ironic in­tri­ca­cies of a moth­er­daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship. Per­haps the book’s most grip­ping scene is the night when Elsie un­ex­pect­edly gives birth to Lul­jeta alone in her bath­room, while mother and baby talk each other through the labor tele­path­i­cally. That in­tense scene, jux­ta­posed against teenage Lul­jeta’s angsty thoughts – “And then it’s in­fu­ri­at­ing, your mother’s need for you, be­cause it feels ma­nip­u­la­tive at worst and a lit­tle creepy at best” – makes the re­la­tion­ship all the more emo­tional.

The au­thor is a na­tive of Water­bury – the Betsy Ross Diner did once ex­ist there – and Aliu was born to an Al­ba­nian fa­ther and a Lithua­nian Amer­i­can mother. (She ded­i­cates the book to her mom but prom­ises it’s not about her). Aliu’s writ­ing is so vivid and in­vig­o­rat­ingly unadul­ter­ated that she doesn’t need to rely on glo­ri­fy­ing young love or man­u­fac­tur­ing sto­ry­book happy end­ings to en­gage the reader. There’s no fetishiz­ing the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence in this tale, and that’s what makes it shine. Pre­vi­ous song sug­ges­tions aside, the po­etry of the book may be best cap­tured by Fleet­wood Mac’s “Land­slide;” when Lul­jeta first hears it, she weeps like she’s “lost some­thing in­stead of dis­cov­ered it.”

Xhenet Aliu

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