STARRED REVIEW
February 2018

My mother before me

By Xhenet Aliu
Review by

Xhenet Aliu’s bright and brash debut novel bursts forth with fearless wit and a take-no-prisoners attitude. While the story’s reluctant mothers and delinquent dads may be familiar, this is not a voice you’ve heard before.

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BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, February 2018

Xhenet Aliu’s bright and brash debut novel bursts forth with fearless wit and a take-no-prisoners attitude. While the story’s reluctant mothers and delinquent dads may be familiar, this is not a voice you’ve heard before.

Set in the mid-1990s in the depressed industrial town of Waterbury, Connecticut—the brass manufacturing capital of the United States, which attracted Eastern European immigrants in the 1980s and ’90s—Brass tells the story of Elsie, a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner. Despite vague intentions to become a dental technician, Elsie is swept off her feet by a brooding Albanian cook, Bashkim, and soon becomes pregnant. Bashkim has a wife in Albania and a batch of mysterious investments that fail to provide financial stability. Although he encourages Elsie to have the child, his increasing volatility and plans to return to Albania make him an unlikely marriage prospect, and Elsie raises their daughter, Luljeta (Lulu), on her own.

Seventeen years later, Lulu receives a rejection letter from NYU and is suspended from high school for fighting on the same day. A lifetime rule-follower, Lulu figures that playing by the book hasn’t helped her much. When Lulu discovers that some of her father’s relatives are still in the area, she decides to seek out the family she’s never met.

Mother and daughter tell their stories in a series of alternating chapters, and both women share the self-deprecating wit of survivors. Elsie’s disintegrating relationship with Bashkim is juxtaposed with her gradual inclusion in Waterbury’s Albanian community (you won’t know whether to laugh or cry at her description of the world’s most depressing baby shower), while Lulu corrals a young man to help her get to Texas, where her father is rumored to live.

Exploring similar themes to Aliu’s short story collection, Domesticated Wild Things (winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize), Brass is a unique twist on a mother-daughter story as well as an immigrant’s tale, with reflections on abandonment, dreams, disappointment and the kind of resilience it takes to endure, despite all odds.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Brass

Brass

By Xhenet Aliu
Random House
ISBN 9780399590245

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