Music, community and motherhood in Naima Coster’s Halsey Street

Naima Coster’s Halsey Street is an aching portrait of a fractured family in the midst of gentrification.

Halsey Street is Naima Coster‘s debut novel and I grew excited after reading the blurb, because a story about family and the Caribbean? Count me in!

Penelope Grand is what you would call a failed artist with a lot of emotional baggage. She drops out of art school and takes on all sorts of odd jobs, from shelving books to waitressing. Her mother Mirella is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Eventually their strained (to say the least) relationship causes Penelope to move out of their Bed-Stuy brownstone. After the closure of her father’s record store and his subsequent accident, Mirella mother moves back to the DR, to reclaim her life, after years of cleaning other peoples homes, an act unforgivable to Penelope.

The novel opens with Penelope deciding to move back to Brooklyn to care for her father. There, she moves into the attic of the Harpers who are a well to do white family. Her semblance of a life is shaken when her mother contacts her, wanting to rebuild their relationship. Thereafter, Coster begins to pull back the layers of the animosity between the two Grand women, against the background of a gentrifying community.

You couldn’t leave a daughter behind; she was yours no matter where you were. Click To Tweet

Halsey Street by Naima Coster

“You couldn’t leave a daughter behind; she was yours no matter where you were.”

In the centre of Coster’s Halsey Street is the relationship between Penelope and her mother. The tension between these two strong women thrums throughout the novel. Yet, it is obvious that Penelope gets her brashness from her mother. Just as it is said in the book

“Daughters get either their courage or their fear from their mothers.”

Many young women have fraught relationships with their mothers, worse especially in the teenage years and early adolescence. However, many of these have improved relations as they get older. For Penelope and Mirella, the problems are deeper than teenage angst. Penelope is embittered by a long childhood of pining for her mother’s affection and by her mother’s treatment of her father, who she virtually idolizes as a child.

“Daughters get either their courage or their fear from their mothers.” - Halsey Street Click To Tweet

Mirella is unbearably distant, constantly antagonistic and emotionally reticent with her daughter and it is often heartbreaking to read. Then there’s also the language barrier as Mirella is primarily Spanish speaking. Coster paints her frustration when she writes

“English was for Ralph and Brooklyn and the overly perfumed rich ladies whose houses she had cleaned; she was never meant to raise a daughter in some other tongue”

In Halsey Street, Penelope copes by acting out, even until adulthood, hungry for love, family, home and yet pushing away or sabotaging relationships which offer her these.

Marriage

The marriage of Mirella and Ralph Grand is virtually nonexistent when Halsey Street begins, as Mirella has abandoned him and returned home to the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, Coster retraces their steps, from Mirella childhood to their love story until the fall of their marriage. I was frustrated by the way they handled their marriage; Mirella’s volatility and Ralph’s almost-indifference and fixation on his store.

Naima Coster’s depiction of the Grands shows what can happen when one person stops trying in a marriage. When they neglect the wishes, thoughts and feelings of the other person and when said person fails to communicate. It was all shambles.

Home

Halsey Street

Everyone in Halsey Street is searching for home, but especially Penelope. Throughout the book, she is adrift, moving houses and running to stay sane. The author also highlights the gentrification of the Grands neighborhood and how this affects people who live in these areas. I was completely unaware of the effects of gentrification, so this novel was a bit of a lesson.

Halsey Street by @zafatista is compelling, necessary and thought provoking. Click To Tweet

What I liked

The chapters in Halsey Street aren’t always chronological. The book begins in the present but then flits back and forth to different points in Mirella, Penelope and Ralph’s lives while returning to the present now and again. I enjoyed Naima Coster’s writing tremendously. She is a phenomenal storyteller. Halsey Street comes to life very easily with her narration and her language is just beautiful. For instance, she writes

“Ralph’s grief had a density and a taste; like a gas, it could fill a room.”

Many writers can make descriptions of places and architecture such a bore, but Coster had me glued to my kindle, picturing every scene, especially those in the DR. I really liked all the Spanish in the book and how it wasn’t translated. Thankfully, I read this on my kindle and could easily translate, ha!

The characters in this book are strong and although I found Penelope very annoying, I also understood why she was that way. Although I disliked Mirella’s character immensely for the most part, I found myself feeling sorry for her toward the end. My least favorite, and I think the most poorly developed character is Ralph Grand. Perhaps the story would be more well rounded if there was more background to his character, but to me, he was such a shallow character, one whose motivations I wish I understood better.

Overall, Halsey Street is a strong debut novel that will cause you to ponder about family, motherhood and what community really means. Although it might ruffle feathers especially on the topic of gentrification, Halsey Street is compelling, necessary and thought provoking. Definitely recommend this beauty of a novel.

Halsey Street will cause you to ponder about family, motherhood and what community really means. Click To Tweet

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy

Products from Amazon.com

 

 

 



  • Obinna Augustine

    You savoured this book; it shows in the very interesting way you’ve reviewed it. Will definitely read this one!

    • It’s a good one!

  • As soon as I saw you were reading this one I was waiting to see your thoughts on it! I thought it was a fascinating look at gentrification embedded into a story about familial relationships. I found Penelope annoying as well, but I liked how even as her actions were ones I disagreed with, I could understand her motivation behind it; she wasn’t a one dimensional character.

    • Exactly! she was soooo annoying but I understood why still. I don’t excuse her behavior but I get it. Great debut!