Exploring memory and solitude in a deeply affecting narrative, Miral al-Tahawy delights and engrosses in her latest novel, Brooklyn Heights. Through an examination of the inner world of Hend, a newly-arrived immigrant in New York City, and also the lives and minds of the people she meets as she attempts to adjust to her new environment, al-Tahawy builds a forlorn yet vibrant portrait of the immigrant community in Brooklyn – a population whose stories are often overlooked.
Al-Tahawy draws heavily on her own cultural and familial background as inspiration for Hend’s backstory, resulting in an intricate and authentic portrayal of life in rural Egypt. Brooklyn Heights might lack a coherent plot however, considering the subject matter, this is not so much a flaw as a cleverly executed technique. Most of our lives do not revolve around a central plot with perfectly timed coincidences and impeccably progressive character development; in her novel, al-Tahawy achieves a realistic but compelling portrayal of the emotional turbulence and hardships of life. Artfully weaving memories and current experience, a dynamic comparison between cultures emerges in Brooklyn Heights. Despite the wide variety of backgrounds and countries of origin, hope of a new life and loss of a former life form a common thread that connects each character; and yet, ironically, their loneliness and disappointment also prevents them from reaching out and forming the bond of companionship that each so dearly crave. The novel’s careful structuring moves the reader from past to present with a subtlety and smoothness which carries you along as if you were merely lost in your own train of thought; we obtain an easy yet insightful glimpse into the colourful histories, origins and ongoing stories of the immigrants and residents that Hend meets both in Brooklyn and in her childhood home.
Although Brooklyn Heights is a tale of bitter disappointment and long-lost dreams, it is also a story of love. As Hend frets piteously over her seemingly perpetual solitude, she overlooks the one source of stability and love she possesses – her young son. The two of them share a strained relationship but al-Tahawy carefully depicts the tender moments that can only exist between mother and child; such instances are reminders of the importance of taking joy from the small things in life, and of appreciating what you already have. Her son’s insight into his mother’s misery provides a sharp contrast with Hend’s own stubborn submission to her fate. His clarity and oppositional stance to many of his mother’s views offers an alternative outlook on Hend’s misery and an additional layer of meaning.
The extract describes al-Tahawy’s novel as “an odyssey of self-discovery,” but despite Hend’s constant reminiscing, she seems to be deliberately blind to the multitude of factors that have shaped her perception of the world. I read Brooklyn Heights as a mosaic of memory and experience which fold together to create a heart-wrenching tale of life as an immigrant in New York, a beautifully sculpted novel which directs the spotlight on the nostalgic personal journey that accompanies the physical act of emigration. For those looking for a raw and authentic insight into the painful trials of adjusting to life in a new country, of dealing with the emotional scars left behind from your previous life, I say look no further than Brooklyn Heights.