by Jamel Brinkley
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Pub Date 01 Aug 2023 | Archive Date 30 Sep 2023
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize
A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times Book Review, NPR, Oprah Daily, Kirkus, BookPage
A Must-Read at The New York Times, NPR, Los Angeles Times, Vulture, The Boston Globe, Shondaland, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Review of Books, Essence, Literary Hub, The Millions, The Root
“Exhilarating . . . Brinkley is a writer whose versatility knows no boundaries . . . A gift of the highest quality.” —Mateo Askaripour, The New York Times Book Review
From National Book Award finalist Jamel Brinkley, Witness is an elegant, insistent narrative of actions taken and not taken.
What does it mean to really see the world around you—to bear witness? And what does it cost us, both to see and not to see?
In these ten stories, each set in the changing landscapes of contemporary New York City, a range of characters—from children to grandmothers to ghosts—live through the responsibility of perceiving and the moral challenge of speaking up or taking action. Though they strive to connect with, stand up for, care for, and remember one another, they often fall short, and the structures they build around these ambitions and failures shape their futures as well as the legacies and prospects of their communities and their city.
In its portraits of families and friendships lost and found, the paradox of intimacy, the long shadow of grief, and the meaning of home, Witness enacts its own testimony. Here is a world where fortunes can be made and stolen in just a few generations, where strangers might sometimes show kindness while those we trust—doctors, employers, siblings—too often turn away, where joy comes in snatches: flowers on a windowsill, dancing in the street, glimpsing your purpose, change on the horizon.
With prose as upendingly beautiful as it is artfully, seamlessly crafted, Jamel Brinkley offers nothing less than the full scope of life and death and change in the great, unending drama of the city.
A Note From the Publisher
“One of the finest young writers working today . . . Brinkley is a skilled, patient prose stylist and deft writer of character who isn’t afraid to engage with the difficult moral complexity of contemporary life. Reading Witness will make you consider your place in the world as both a bystander and a participant.” —Isle McElroy, Vulture
“[Witness] contains stories about people who choose to speak on behalf of others—or fail to do so. Brinkley is immensely talented, making this one of the year’s most anticipated works of American fiction.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“These brilliant and heart-wrenching stories, bound by the act of bearing witness, capture moments of loss and grief.” —Lauren LeBlanc, The Boston Globe
★ “Short stories that in their depth of feeling, perception, and sense of place affirm their author’s bright promise . . . [They] carry a rich veneer worthy of such exemplars of the form as Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, and James Alan McPherson . . . After just two collections, Brinkley may already be a grand master of the short story.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
★ “In his dazzling sophomore collection, Brinkley digs into the promises and dangers of intimacy and the costs of speaking up or staying silent . . . Throughout, Brinkley crafts unforgettable portraits, humming with barely restrained tension, of Black men and women exploring what it means to be part of families and communities that are awash in hope and disappointment alike. These intimate vignettes have the power to move readers.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Brinkley keenly explores [his characters’] predicaments with grace and wit.” —Mark Athitakis, Los Angeles Times
“[Witness] probes the nature and cost of doing something. Brinkley’s short fiction can be found in just about all of the biggest short story outlets, and his previous collection was nominated for a National Book Award. So, I think it’s safe to say we can expect great things from this one as well.” —Shelbi Polk, Shondaland
“Portraits of intimacy and friendship, grief and mourning . . . Expect this to be one of the standout collections of the year.” —Dan Sheehan, Literary Hub (Most Anticipated Books of 2023)
“Jamel Brinkley is one of the best story writers we have. Witness is a book of psychological acuity, of graceful sentences, of devastation and heart. Read everything this man writes, and know the world anew.” —Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
“Jamel Brinkley reminds one of iconic short-story writers Edward P. Jones and Mavis Gallant. His characters, full of mysteries and secrets, do not strive to be something larger than life, nor do they allow themselves to be reduced into categorizable and explicable figures. Each story in Witness brings a novel’s worth of richness and complexity. This is a dazzling collection by a masterful storyteller.” —Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose
“In Witness, Jamel Brinkley explores the longings and fears of his characters with a tenderness and generosity of spirit that makes the reader hurt when they hurt, and rejoice in life’s surprising moments of joy alongside them. He renders worlds both familiar and new with precision and clarity, showing the many ways that place has the power to mark people, whether they be young boys, old men or the people society pushes to its margins. Read Witness and allow yourself the pleasure of seeing the world as Brinkley sees it.” —Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House
“Brinkley’s sentences are daggers. He writes about the shifting intimacies of community and love with wit and warmth.” —Raven Leilani, author of Luster
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 40 members
Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. These ten stories, show different generations of black families that deal with the obligations of family life, dead end jobs, failed romances and an ever gentrifying New York City. Life is never straightforward in these tales as a man is trying to deal with a visit from his young son while he tries to move his father, who is suffering from dementia, and into an elder care facility and wondering who might buy his father's house, seeing as the ghost of his mother is still living there. Story after story is as rich as this one, asking hard questions, while always keeping a good sense of humor.
I do like a well-written short story and this collection is very well written. All are set in New York and they tell of very human relationships between compelling characters. This is the defining feature of these stories: the relationships between the characters and this makes a very pleasant change from crime, murder etc. The characters and their gritty real lives felt at times like non-fiction memoirs rather than fiction. I found myself re-reading sections, just for the pleasure of reading those passages again.
The weight of these stories sneaks up on you like a sudden storm. Brinkley has a unique voice that’s worldly yet humble, and his characters inhabit fragile worlds, always tiptoeing on thin ice.
Only someone with an insider's knowledge of contemporary New York life could have written these stories. Jamel Brinkley, award winning writer who knows the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Fort Green and others could take the gentrification and resultant social changes and spun them into gold. Sometimes the issue is a sidebar to the family upheavals and connections, and sometime there is a direct correlation, but these characters are more than figments of a fertile mind. They are representatives of the population being displaced by "bike riders who actually wear helmets." Each story stands on its own, and as I've pointed out elsewhere, a well written collection of short stories is harder work than a novel of equal length.
One of the things I love about literary fiction is the way that tiny actions can have monumental meaning. A word, a gesture, a character turning one way instead of the other can shift the story world profoundly.
So it is with the stories in James Brinkley's new collection, Witness. The subjects are friendship, sibling relationships through the decades, romantic relationships that are functional, dysfunctional, and semi-functional. The themes run deeper: how race and gender constructs play out in individuals' lives, the consequences of violence—both domestic and societal, grief, loss, change.
Brinkley's skill shines in effortless but breathtaking phrases and characters who break your heart even as you shake your head at their foibles. He commands the narrative with just the right amount of revelation at just the right moment and is a master of the slow reveal: unfurling characters' secrets like a slow-motion video of a high-wire fall, maintaining an element of surprise without straining credulity.
I tried to choose a favorite, but I couldn't.
Would it be "Comfort," in which Simone, still struggling to get her life on track four years after her brother was killed by a police officer, takes up with a man she calls Bamboo because they met at a Caribbean restaurant? "She enjoys the ease of him, his willingness to come over whenever she asks him to, his compliance when she wants to be left alone. She likes that he doesn't insist too strongly on going out, or on talking about her troubles." She imagines the wife of the police officer, who was not convicted, and how moving to the suburbs, as the officer did after his administrative leave, "might be the fulfillment of an old-fashioned dream, a life of safety and peace away from the city. Or maybe she's bored out of her mind in the suburbs, maybe she despises it there." Simone drinks herself into oblivion as she ruminates on the officer and his family and her brother's last moments playing out in the squad car. The "comfort" of the title is revealed in the brief ending scene, told from Bamboo's point of view, which I won't spoil for readers.
Or my favorite could be "Arrows," a modern ghost story that doesn't reveal itself as such immediately, in which Helena haunts her husband and son from within the bedroom of the house she once inhabited. Or maybe "Gloria," in which a lonely older woman begins writing notes to her food delivery person. As a hospitality service worker herself, she finds herself entangled in the dynamics of the hotel's power structure. Her letters to the delivery person become more detailed, revealing her relationship with her late husband. "Before now," she writes, "I've never had deep, forthright correspondence with anyone. I've never kept a diary or a journal. A woman and her wall of books (and sometimes a flaming dress worth one's notice)—that's all I've ever been, really.”
Each story seemed more engaging than the last, and by the time I reached "Witness," the tenth, I had become a devoted fan of Brinkley's work and look forward to more.
I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley.