The J to Halsey Street

I grew up being bounced up to my grandparents’ house in Bedstuy almost every summer from my southern homes spread between Savannah, GA and Montgomery, AL. Every trip was a shock of people, heat, cars, towers, bodegas, stoops, and family. My grandparents bought their brownstone thirty years ago, and since then have watched the world of Bedstuy change around them from their lawn chairs in the front concrete-lined yard.

And my, has it changed. I went to visit my grandparents last weekend, and as I walked the few blocks from the Ralph Ave. C train stop to my house (I usually take the J to Halsey, but y’all know how crazy the train is on the weekends), I saw new coffee shops, white people with dogs, and craft beers featured in the bodega windows. That’s not the Bedstuy that I remember traipsing through as a teenager, the one filled with Popeyes and Crown Fried Chickens, with neighbors who lounged on your stoop for hours at a time and block parties that filled the neighborhood with smoke, music, food, and hopscotch.

So many things in me connected with the characters and settings carefully drawn in this story. Who of us hasn’t reacted to trauma and rejection by projecting it on those around us? Who of us hasn’t felt alienated and rejected by someone who is supposed to love us fully? Who of us hasn’t wanted to leave everything we knew only to figure out that there was nothing much on the other side either? Who of us hasn’t looked up and realized that in at least some ways, we have nothing to show for the many years that have passed since the last time we brought our heads above the water?

Those are the things that our main character in the novel Halsey Street is dealing with, and baby lemme tell you, these are real ass issues. Juxtapose all those with the changing landscape of our worlds as we know it, the ones that were neglected when they were ours but are being scrubbed of the grime now that they are fashionable…and unfortunately, the grime is us. Halsey Street is the debut novel of Naima Coster, and I truly hope to see more from her. She captured so many feelings that we sometimes don’t even know we have, and I found her writing to be particularly adept at helping the reader identify with emotions and personality traits of which we may not experience or approve.

If there is a fault in the story-telling, it would be the somewhat disorienting shifts in time and setting that occur occasionally throughout the story. Though, I will repeat what I often say when I offer criticism of a novel I’ve recently finished: I’m not sure if this is a technique intentionally employed by Coster to create that unsettling feeling that occurs when we don’t know what is the past and what is the present, and if it was intentional, I don’t know if it was a choice that works or not. Then again, I guess it’s the same feeling I get when I walk down Howard Ave. and I can’t see past my memories of the old men rubbing their knees on the stoop to recognize that they’ve been replaced by the young couple from Minnesota with a baby and a poodle.

Either way, overall, I loved this novel and appreciated it for drawing so many aspects of my life and worries onto the page. I definitely recommend it.


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