Review by Rebekah Bergman
“This is the story of an eye, and how it came into its own” –Leaving Brooklyn
The Brooklyn of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s 1989 novel bears little resemblance to the one we may think of today. To Audrey, the retrospective narrator, Brooklyn is thoroughly provincial. Hers is a neighborhood with a milkman, where a chicken flicker takes the feathers off the bird after she buys it, where her father plays weekly games of pinochle and her mother, mahjong. Schwartz recreates this world as a child of the 1950s might perceive it. Audrey likens Senator Joseph McCarthy to a pig, for example, and understands that a son “lost” in the war has merely wandered off but might return.
The arc of Audrey’s story is her coming-of-age, which begins with an injury that left her, as an infant, legally blind in one eye. Vision is the central metaphor for her narrative. Her blind eye could see, she states, but in an “idiosyncratic way.” It detects shapes but not connections between them. When she squints her good eye, objects might disintegrate from her visible world as if she could, in fact, see through them. As a child, Audrey relishes in this double vision as if it were a secret power. She longs “to know what was behind everything… to peel whatever [she] saw.” She notes later that “[w]hat is politely called curiosity in children is greed.” This curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, fuels her sense of not belonging and her resolution to not want to belong.
For a significant time, Audrey’s knowledge of the wider world is gleaned mostly from books. When an older man falls for her, she is pulled to act out of curiosity more than attraction. She describes this first sexual experience as if it, too, were something she read: “It was even like a book,” she recounts, “with new passages rolling through me rhythmically, each bearings its multitude of sensations, while I followed along—captive and heroine, feast and feaster—through infinitely opening spaces and elongated time.” The double vision that defines Audrey occurs even—perhaps especially—at such formative moments; there is the Audrey who participates in her life and the Audrey who passively watches her life unfold.
Audrey witnesses only peripheral effects of the Second World War; standing in ration lines and saving wires from milk bottles. Yet the war frames her life more than she consciously knows. She understands the Yiddish her mother and grandmother speak even though she cannot attach meaning to individual words. Yiddish is the language of her inherited memory, “a form of subliminal transport, a direct delivery of thought and feeling.” Her status as a third-generation immigrant adds to her struggle with belonging as well. There is a divide between Audrey and her parents that widens as she grows up. Schwartz reveals this gap, characteristically, in an image captured from childhood. Audrey thinks of a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, where—in the most basic form—scissors cut paper and rock breaks scissors. “If we children were paper and the teachers were scissors, home was rock.” But, she admits this hierarchy, like the rules, would change. “Later, only later, paper would cover rock.”
Adulthood has further distanced Audrey from the events that composed her past. As narrator, she often drifts into third person. Early on, she states her aim for the novel as “an attempt at unveiling.” Rather than age serving to toughen one’s skin, she says, “it may be the opposite, a gradual removal of layers.” Reliving her memories, Audrey examines herself through her bad eye. The novel has the intimacy of a memoir as Audrey rediscovers the self she is now, the I underneath.
Though the Brooklyn has changed, Schwartz’s story is timeless. Audrey struggles to break away from ties that feel confining. Her insights are powerful and her memory, rich. Despite a lack of depth perception, the world she crafts is profound, and we step right in.
Rebekah Bergman is an MFA candidate at The New School. Her fiction has appeared in Construction, Everyday Genius, Two Serious Ladies, and Necessary Fiction, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.