A Review of Brown Girl, Brownstones

Reading Paule Marshall's novel Brown Girl, Brownstones threw up a number of exciting firsts for me. It was the first time I was reading a work by an esteemed author with her roots firmly planted in Barbados. And it was the first book I’d read for the first-ever book club I'd attended. 

Brown Girl, Brownstones tells the story of an immigrant Barbadian family in Brooklyn, New York, and their conflicting ambitions. It is told through the gaze of the older daughter, Selina, and overlaid with an omniscient narrator. Young Selina is a misfit because of her looks, her alienating thoughts and utterances, and finally because of her father’s shameful death. Yet I do not pity her; she has a strength and nerve that is admirable.

I’ve visited New York City (NYC) several times and stay mostly in Brooklyn. So I was familiar with some of the places that Selina visited in the borough in the 1930s. As a girl born in the big city (London, England) with romantic notions of Barbados, I identified with the protagonist as she finds herself in the midst of conflict—her mother's relentless ambition to own a brownstone in Brooklyn is incongruent with her father's intoxicating dream to build a house “back home.”

The dysfunctional love relationship between Caribbean men and their women is a major theme. Deighton and Silla’s relationship is marked by an inability to convey emotions other than rage, lust, frustration, and irritation. The vulnerabilities we often share but deny—hurt, pain and genuine affection—are masked by harsher, surface emotions. When Deighton is arrested for being an illegal immigrant (at his wife's instigation), in their final moments they exchange a look that Marshall captures beautifully: “…shy yet curious and at its core the stir of love. Silently they asked each other…what it was that had ruined them for each other, and their mutual bewilderment confessed they did not know.”

Silla lives out a Caribbean woman's nightmare—marrying a man with less ambition than her. She resorts to trickery when she cannot control his mind. Deighton’s lot is the corollary—a wife who doesn't believe in him and who shows it. He is seen as lazy and flighty, though I am not sure I perceived him that way, not in the traditional sense. Perhaps, too, I am a dreamer.

Although the novel is set largely in NYC, Marshall does a commendable job in grounding the reader in the traditions of Barbados and island life through her rendering of oral tradition, Barbadian folklore, and culinary practices. No more is Marshall's skill at painting Bajan life so deft as in the language of her characters. The cadence of Bajan dialect is captured so well that I felt as if I was eavesdropping on conversations between my faceless forbears.

Three words into the first chapter, I plucked up my smartphone to look up the definition of “somnolent.”  When it appeared again later in the book I was better prepared. That leads me to say, though, that some of the description as well as the references to ancient Greek literature were superfluous.  But I give Marshall grace; this was her first book, published before she was even 30 years old. 

The book feels like several books rolled into one, and I read far past what I thought was its end, yet I am glad I persisted. Brown Girl, Brownstones is an important story that Marshall has told and in many ways it feels like part of my own.