Thursday 12 May 2022

A fine book let down by poor digitisation

Brown Girl, Brownstones Brown Girl, Brownstones is Paule Marshall's debut novel, published in 1959. It's the coming-of-age story of Selina Boyce, who when the story starts in 1939 is "a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore". She lives in Brooklyn with her family, older sister Ina, and parents Silla and Deighton, who are West Indian immigrants. They inhabit a 'brownstone' house, which the mother hopes one day to buy. Deighton meanwhile studies accountancy, hoping that when "I finish I can qualify for a job making good money".

The first half of the book is filled with conflict arising from the parents' differing views on how to get ahead in their new life in America. Marshall portrays Silla as a harpy and Deighton as feckless. Selina is a 'daddy's girl', hates her mother, and finds Ina insipid. The constant bickering and sniping annoyed me and I was on the verge of giving up when the story shifted from family tensions to concentrate on Selina's later teenage years, her attempt to find her place in the world and discover what sort of a person she wants to be.

A key theme of the book is racism. In one memorable scene we witness an excruciating encounter between the teenage Selina and her white friend's mother. It's filled with micro-aggression: "You don't even act colored. I mean, you speak so well and have such poise. And it's just wonderful how you've taken your race's natural talent for dancing and music and developed it."

I might have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't just finished reading Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults. Since they are both bildungsroman they contain some similarities, such as the parental shift from one lifestyle to another. In Marshall's story the protagonist's parents have moved from Barbados to New York, in Ferrante's tale the father has left his working class roots behind and established himself in middle-class academia. The relationship between the parents in both stories is difficult too. And surprisingly the authors use a similar device to indicate the girl leaving behind childhood and becoming a woman.

Ferrante's style is to have the girl herself narrate the story, now an adult, remembering events from her youth, whereas Marshall tells Selina's story in the 3rd person. This tends to keep the reader at a distance and distracts from the protagonist when other characters are in focus. My preference was for Ferrante's more recent work.

Other readers may disagree on matters of style and story, but the most serious problem with Marshall's book was its poor digitisation. My edition was published by Reading Essentials in 2019. Its digital table of contents contained only 'beginning' and 'end', which made it impossible to work out where I was within the book and how long I had to read until the end of a chapter. Indeed, there wasn't even a contents page, so I had no idea if there were any chapters and had to resort to Wikipedia to find out. You might expect this sort of thing in something downloaded free from Gutenberg, but not in a purchased book from Amazon. It's very shoddy. Marshall's work deserves better.

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