Copper and zinc combine to make brass, the stuff of earrings and trumpets and doorknobs. Similarly, Xhenet Aliu's lustrous Brass fuses two distinct plot lines: that of Elsie—a young, pregnant waitress in love with Bashkim, an Albanian line cook—and the journey of her daughter, Luljeta, 17 years later, to reconcile the past. The result is a tale alive with humor and gumption, of the knotty, needy bond between a mother and daughter.
Elsie and Bashkim's romance sparks when he tells her, "I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen." It turns out to be insincere flattery—for starters, Bashkim is an atheist. And he has a wife he left behind in Albania to start anew in Waterbury, Connecticut, a factory town known as Brass City.
The collapse of Elsie and Bashkim's relationship occurs in sections alternating with the present-day saga of Luljeta, whom Elsie raised in Waterbury. Luljeta is smart and tough—when we meet her, she gets a black eye from a gaggle of high school enemies. Fed up with her own bad luck and her mother's empty promises, she heads to Texas to find her father.
In novels with multiple narrators, one often outshines the other. But Aliu's dual protagonists are equally headstrong and witty, and their stories, separated by many years, parallel so gracefully that each chapter informs the one that comes after. Elsie's insomnia in one chapter is mirrored by Luljeta's in the next; each has fights with her boyfriend that echo the other's.
Waterbury's motto, inscribed in Latin on its city hall, is "What is more lasting than brass?" Elsie, on her way to the gynecologist, finds the question ridiculous. Everything lasts longer than brass, she says—even mud, even the rubber on her sneakers. A reasonable theory, given the demise of the brass factories. Aliu's first novel, on the other hand, marks the arrival of a writer whose work will stand the test of time.