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 butane-blue 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 Athens-based author does an about-face, 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 first-person: “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 mother-daughter 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.”
By Xhenet Aliu