When I described Xhenet Aliu’s Brass to a friend as a story about a teenage girl’s complicated relationship with her single mother, she said, “I’m not really a fan of mother-daughter stories.” We parted ways soon after, and I walked the three blocks to my apartment reflecting on my friend’s quick dismissal, feeling distinctly as though she had given the novel short shrift. Perhaps it was my fault, because I didn’t say Aliu’s smart, layered novel also explores the experiences of first-generation Americans and recent immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut, a once-bustling industrial town built on the brass business, which now serves as a near-relic, crumbling and ghostly.
Perhaps my friend underestimated the power and possibilities of the mother-daughter story. I made a list of the most enduring and evocative mother-daughter novels I could name from recent decades: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. Mothers in these stories deny their daughters, betray their daughters, sacrifice themselves for their daughters, sacrifice their daughters. These works also reveal the complexities of place and displacement; question gendered cultural systems; employ folklore and magical realism to transcend unimaginable hardship; and examine the lasting impact of abuse, of rape, of slavery. They tell compelling stories about how women move through a world that is hostile toward them, about how they raise next-generation women to be resilient and teach them to navigate that same world.
These particular novels also tend to circle around the distance and misunderstandings between mothers and daughters that arise alongside the angst of adolescence, sometimes heightened by absent fathers. Perhaps this is the dynamic of popular mother-daughter books with which my friend struggled. Perhaps, for her, the storylines feel too familiar. Aliu’s novel certainly explores this territory, but with biting wit and a fair amount of cynicism from the lips of a whip-smart girl on the edge of adult-hood, which prevent it from veering into sentimentality or melodrama.
By “girl,” I refer to both the mother and the daughter of Brass, Elsie and Lul- jeta, who take turns narrating the novel in alternating chapters. The first introduces Elsie, who walks into her waitressing job one morning at the Betsy Ross Diner in the early nineties to find Bashkim behind the grill, recently arrived from Albania. Despite Elsie’s low opinion of Bashkim’s large, angular nose and craggy face, the attraction between them is palpable from the start. Bashkim’s flirtations are the only motivation she requires: “I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen,” he tells her. Elsie quickly sees a future with Bashkim, despite the concerns of her Lithuanian mother, who goes by “Mamie” because “she didn’t like the sound of Mommy And she couldn’t use Mom, because that was for women with tennis bracelets and husbands.” Mamie has warned her against the Albanian men at the diner, wanting a nice Lithuanian boy for her instead. Elsie assumes she was talking not about Bashkim, but “about the teenage Albanians who jumped kids in the movie theater parking lot, or the middle- aged ones who choked me out of the dining room with the Marlboro Red smoke that leaked out of their mouths like cartoon thought bubbles.” For Elsie, Bashkim is singular, enigmatic, and—most important—offers her a flicker of hope that she might one day defy Mamie and escape Waterbury. She repeats his first words to her until they become a mantra and she is completely seduced: I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.
The second chapter travels roughly seventeen years into the future and introduces Luljeta, whose concerns are almost identical to her mother’s, including getting out of Waterbury and finding the “American Dream” for which her grandparents and father searched. However, Lulu’s future is wrapped up in the acceptance letter she awaits from NYU and is complicated by a secondary desire she shares with no one—not Elsie, her hip aunt Greta, or her only friend Teena. Even to Ahmet, a smitten teenager Lulu meets while searching for her mysterious father at the Betsy Ross, she tells only partial truths, even after he promises to help her search.
“Some people won’t be surprised at the fuckery of which you’re about to prove yourself capable,” Lulu’s first chapter begins. This marks the start of the daughter’s journey in search of her father. Notable is her use of the second person, for if the “I” is indicative of a unified self, then Lulu’s approach suggests a self in search of wholeness. If Lulu could uncover the mystery of her father, Aliu’s intriguing narrative choice suggests, she could make herself complete. Perhaps inevitably, Lulu comes to know herself through the course of her investigation, with or without Bashkim’s help. However, this shift in perspective is not the only surprise Lulu’s chapters offer. Like her desires, her voice also proves so similar to Elsie’s that at times Elsie’s “I” and Lulu’s “you” feel as though they blend into each other. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this blending is not only intentional but inventive, fully unifying at the moment Lulu and Elsie meet for the first time. Lulu’s birth incites a revelatory uniting of consciousness between mother and daughter by employing first-, second-, and third-person perspectives. For a singular moment, Elsie and Lulu are simultaneously one and two—arguably closer in this moment than ever before or after in the novel.
What case would I make to my dear friend whose aversion to the mother-daughter novel might deter her from Aliu’s Brass? For one, Aliu deftly navigates the dramatic irony of the absolute likeness of mother and daughter. They each seem unaware of how closely mirrored are their desires and their attitudes. At an especially poignant moment, in the middle of the baby shower hosted by a gaggle of Bashkim’s Albanian relatives, Elsie questions what kind of child she will have: “Muscly and quiet and serious like Bashkim, or skinny and smart and broken like [Aunt] Greta, or bitter and tipsy and mean like Mamie? Or would it be like me? I thought for a minute and realized that I didn’t even know what that meant, what few things I could be boiled down to.” In so many words, Lulu repeats these sentiments throughout her own chapters, as she searches for the missing pieces of herself that she expects to find in Bashkim. Aliu’s expert handling of the shifting perspectives never reveals whether Elsie understands that she has raised a young woman so thoroughly like herself.
The novel also has much to offer in the way of the classic road trip tale, the “American Dream” narrative, and a more recent crop of novels—such as Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage—exploring the death of American manufacturing towns. Although these concerns take a backseat to the family narrative at times, it would be unfair to Brass to call them secondary or tertiary. These themes weave into the fabric of Elsie’s and Lulu’s desires, shape their expectations and their realities, and inform what the two women believe they are allowed to possess.
Even the novel’s opening lines say as much: “When the last of the brass mills locked up their doors and hauled ass out of town once and for all, it seemed all they left behind were blocks of abandoned factories that poked out from behind high stone gates like caskets floated to the surface after the Great Flood of ’55.” This lifeless, industrial imagery is the setting for nearly the entire novel—concrete everywhere, shuttered strip malls, empty parking lots, rows of two-story, nondescript apartment buildings—and provides perhaps the novel’s ultimate irony: this dying place is the backdrop of Bashkim’s entry into America as a refugee with big financial dreams who is devastated to find upon his arrival that the streets are not literally paved with gold. Elsie comes to know the hardships he has suffered back home, starving in labor camps; how his investments in the new democratic Albanian government might be nothing more than Ponzi schemes; and how the family he left back home still suffers under new leadership. Brass is a novel concerned with commerce, capitalism, and the dangers of wanting—but as Elsie says toward the beginning of the novel, the gleam of new love in her eyes, “An impossible dream was better than no dream at all.”