Gentrification is no monolith in Naima Coster’s graceful, versatile debut. Her novel, Halsey Street, is set primarily in Brooklyn’s swiftly changing Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
“My experience of gentrification certainly isn’t the only one worth thinking about,” says Coster, a native of nearby Fort Greene, “but it’s the one I felt I could begin with.”
Coster, who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, an MA in English and creative writing from Fordham University, and a BA in English and African American studies from Yale, currently teaches writing at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
“What I wanted to capture or to offer,” in Halsey Street, in part, she says, “was a portrait of a young woman struggling to find where she fits into a place that should feel like home, and does in some ways, but doesn’t in others.”
Penelope Grand is a talented artist tending bar, semi-anonymously, in Pittsburgh, when her father, Ralph, injures himself on the night of his sixty-third birthday. She immediately moves back to Brooklyn, to supervise his convalescence from a nearby sublet, and takes a job as a permanent substitute art teacher. She’s present, yet unsettled.
“As a girl, she’d had no places of her own in Bed-Stuy;” Coster writes. “She had followed her father around to his haunts, and when she was old enough she set out for the city to drink and meet men. She could try to find a bar, but there would be no point in drinking if she had to sit in sick awareness of herself, surrounded by well-off white people, new to the neighborhood, blind to her, or worse.”
Worse includes the casual and overt racism of the new white neighbors, including Penelope’s landlords, the Harpers, a wealthy couple from the West Village whose Manhattan money easily afforded a historic brownstone. But the complicated relationship she forms with that family has nothing on the estrangements within her own: namely, to her mother, Mirella, a native of the Dominican Republic, who, in Penelope’s view, left Ralph in the lurch.
“[Mirella] was the one who didn’t miss him now,” she writes. “She had stopped longing for him, slowly, over the years he left her alone in that dilapidated house in Brooklyn. Penelope was different. You couldn’t leave a daughter behind; she was yours no matter where you were.”
“I didn’t intend for it to be a mother and daughter story,” Coster says, “but as I wrote further into Penelope, and the deep gap that her mother left in her life, I felt, left unfilled, it would be a gap in the book, too. Penelope who would never at this stage in her life do justice to the perspective of this missing person who’s wounded her so deeply. I had to spend some time with Mirella, try to answer some of the questions I had as a writer about this family, from her perspective.”
Told from two perspectives, Halsey Street is “absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole,” Kirkus writes in a starred review.
“In life outside of literature, we recognize how difficult behavior change is and how very long it can take,” Coster says. “Working on this book, working with characters who have lovely and also destructive and hurting parts of themselves, I wanted to make sure whatever arc I traced would mark a significant shift in the characters’ lives, but also do justice to how difficult the obstacles that they’re up against are.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.