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Posts Tagged ‘Paule Marshall’

I have had Brown Girl, Brownstones among my stack of unread Viragos for some time and when I was looking for a virago to read recently it caught my eye. I realised I knew nothing at all about the author – and went off in search of a little information. Oh, what did we all do before the internet?

Like the heroine in her debut novel – Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn, New York her parents having emigrated from Barbados some years before. She is the author of several works of fiction, short stories and an autobiography, all published between 1959 and 2009. I really felt I should have heard more about this writer, who I discovered only died last year. I was pleased to see though that some of her work seems to be still in print. I believe it is this novel – her debut that is her best known book – but I am now keen to read more by her.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a coming of age story; Selina Boyce is the younger daughter of Barbadian immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York during the Depression and Second World War. It is very evocative of a time and place and of a community. Marshall shows us with some poignancy what it was to grow up black and female. Mark Twain reputedly said – ‘history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes’ – and I think there is a lot that rhymes here. Selina wants her own identity, born in the US, she wishes to go her own way, a different generation to her parents she doesn’t want to be just like them and their friends at the Barbadian Association.

“‘I don’t care, I won’t be like them!’ she replied as savagely, and angrily struck the water with her foot so that the spray burst in a white design before them and then dropped. ‘I won’t be cut out of the same piece of cloth.’

As the novel opens it is 1939 and Selina is ten years old. Her ambitious mother Silla is a factory worker, who has leased the brownstone where the family live – other parts of the house are rented out to tenants about whom she complains loudly. Selina’s father Deighton is lazy and unreliable but very charming and Selina adores him. While Silla works hard in order to achieve her objective of buying the house where they live – her husband has a head full of fantasies and half formed plans.  Selina’s older sister Ina is already becoming something of a mysterious figure for Selina as the older girl walks that path between adolescence and womanhood. One of the tenants of the house is Suggie Skeete – a woman who Selina’s mother disapproves of deeply – as she trails a succession of men upstairs to her room. She is one of a number of people who Selina befriends and takes an interest in – as she tries to make sense of the world around her. Selina desperately tries to reconcile the loyalty due to her mother with the world her father reveals to her through his dreams of building a house back in Barbados. She is constantly caught up in the battle between them. In time we come see that Selina is rather more her mother’s daughter than we might think at first.

Mothers and daughters is a strong theme here and I was struck by this speech by Selina’s boyfriend later in the novel, another character with a difficult controlling mother.

“‘Mothers? Hell, they seldom say die! Fathers perhaps. Like my poor father. He just acts like I don’t exist. But not mothers. They form you in that dark place inside them and you’re theirs. For giving life they exact life. The cord remains uncut, the blood joined and all that that implies. They hold you by their weakness, their whining, their sickness, their long-suffering, their tears and their money…We’re all caught within a circle of women, I’m afraid, and we move from one to the next in a kind of blind dance.’”

The novel is written in the third person, but the viewpoint is always that of Selina – from the beginning we see this difficult relationship with her mother. Cleverly, and rather tellingly Marshall refers to Silla through Selina’s eyes as the mother, not her mother. Silla is a dominating figure, an important member of the local Barbadian community. Often gathered around her in the kitchen are other women from the community, listening almost wordlessly as Silla expounds her views on all sorts of issues in her broad Barbadian dialect. The Barbadian Association is nearby, through which much of what happens within the community passes and with which she wishes Selina would become involved as she grows up. As the novel progresses Silla becomes an ever more tragic figure – her drive and her ambition sees her lie, cheat and betray in the name of improving the family fortunes.

As Selina grows up, she becomes interested in dance – she joins a dance class and is befriended by some white girls. Her mother wants her to go to medical school, but Selina has no desire to do that. Her experience of the Association is not a positive one, and she can see her older sister edging nearer and nearer the settled conventional life that their mother approves of. She meets a young artist in the doorway of the association and takes to meeting him behind her mother’s back.

Selina has many things to learn about her own culture and what it is she really wants. Now older, Selina must also face up to the reality of the racism that is everywhere around her – there is a sense that her childhood had protected her from this to a degree, but there comes a time when she is a child no longer and her eyes are fully opened. It is a brilliantly written scene – deeply poignant and very affecting and will shape the decisions Selina makes next.

“The woman there must have carefully arranged her smile before Selina had entered. While she had been dancing down the hall perhaps or finishing her punch with Rachel, the woman’s mouth, eyes the muscles under her pale powdered skin must have been shaping that courteous, curious and appraising smile. Months, years later Selina was to remember it, since it became the one vivid memory of that evening, and to wonder why it had not unsettled her even then. Whenever she remembered it – all down the long years to her death – she was to start helplessly, and every white face would be suspect for that moment.”

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a quite brilliant novel – a novel full of extraordinarily well drawn characters, rich voices written with honesty and anger.

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