Brass: A Novel

A fierce debut novel about mothers and daughters, haves and have-nots, and the stark realities behind the American Dream

A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, who is at once both worldly and naïve, a married man who left Albania to chase his dreams—and wound up working as a line cook in Waterbury, Connecticut. Back when the brass mills were still open, this bustling factory town drew one wave of immigrants after another. Now it’s the place they can’t seem to leave. Elsie, herself the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, falls in love quickly, but when she learns that she’s pregnant, Elsie can’t help wondering where Bashkim’s heart really lies, and what he’ll do about the wife he left behind.

Seventeen years later, headstrong and independent Luljeta receives a rejection letter from NYU and her first-ever suspension from school on the same day. Instead of striking out on her own in Manhattan, she’s stuck in Connecticut with her mother, Elsie—a fate she refuses to accept. Wondering if the key to her future is unlocking the secrets of the past, Lulu decides to find out what exactly her mother has been hiding about the father she never knew. As she soon discovers, the truth is closer than she ever imagined.

Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.

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“From its opening page, ‘Brass’ simmers with anger–the all too real byproduct of working hard for not enough, of being a woman in a place where women have little value of getting knocked down one too many times. But when the simmer breaks into a boil, Aliu alchemizes that anger into love, and in doing so creates one of the most potent dramatizations of the bond between mother and daughter that I’ve ever read.”

Julie Buntin, The New York Times Book Review 

“Xhenet Aliu’s 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 renconcile the past. The result is a tale alive with humor and gumption, of the knotty, needy bond between a mother and daughter … [Aliu’s first novel] marks the arrival of a writer whose work will stand the test of time.” 

Claire Luchette, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Xhenet Aliu grew up in Waterbury, and she sets her striking debut novel Brass in the same place, bringing its charms and despair to life through prose best described as lyrically gritty …. With Brass, Aliu has introduced herself as a major new literary voice.”

David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly 

“Aliu is witty and unsparing in her depiction of the town and its inhabitants, illustrating the granular realities of the struggle for class mobility.”

Briefly Noted, The New Yorker

“Each chapter switches between [their] perspectives to tell stories of tragic loss, strained family ties, migration across great distances, and dreams deferred. The end results is an exceptional debut novel, one that plumbs the notion of the American Dream while escaping the cliches that pursuit almost always brings with it.” 

Eugenia Williamson, The Boston Globe

“Aliu’s writing is so vivid and invigoratingly unadulterated that she doesn’t need to rely on glorifying young love or manufacturing storybook happy endings to engage the reader. There’s no fetishizing the human experience in this tale, and that’s what makes it shine.”

Becca J.G. Godwin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It’s clear from the outset that neither will get exactly what she wants, but the women’s voices are so instantly compelling–first-person in Elsie’s sections, second-person in Luljeta’s–you’ll want to read on to find out how they ride out the wave of their failures.”

Jenny Shank, Dallas News

“The writing blazes on the page … The narrative is also incredibly funny, sly, and always popping with personality … So much about the book is also extraordinarily timely, especially when it focuses on class and culture, and what they really mean … as this audacious novel shows, we can–and we must–keep struggling to make our own place in the world.” 

Caroline Leavitt, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Xhenet Aliu’s bright and brash debut novel bursts forth with fearless with and a take-no-prisoners attitude. While the story’s reluctant mothers and delinquent dads may be familiar, this is not a voice you’ve heard before . . . Brass is a unique twist on a mother-daughter story as well as an immigrant’s tale, with reflections on abandonment, dreams, disappointment and the kind of resilience it takes to endure, despite all odds.”

Lauren Bufferd, BookPage (BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, February 2018) 

“This glimmering debut novel reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds . . . Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit. Her characters are nuanced and real, capable of taking risks, making mistakes, and growing in unexpected ways. Aliu’s writing is polished and precise, bringing her characters glowingly to life.”

Kirkus (starred review)

“Deftly written in a style that is evocative of time and place, this universal story of the search for home is well translated into the blue-collar world of Elsie and Lulu.”

Library Journal (starred review)

“Rage and hilarity form a dynamic symbiosis in Aliu’s debut novel, a stinging mother-and-daughter duet…Aliu is spectacularly funny and deeply insightful. With all-the-way-live characters, vigorous observation, combative dialogue, bravado metaphors, and ninja parsing of social class, immigrant struggles, bad behavior, and stubborn hope, Aliu has created a boldly witty and astute inquiry into the nature-versus-nurture debate, the inheritance of pain, and the dream of transcendence.

Booklist (starred review)

“Aliu juxtaposes a mother and daughter’s late teenage desperation 17 years apart in her striking first novel … This is a captivating, moving story of drastic measures, failed schemes, and the loss of innocence.”

Publisher’s Weekly

“The unforgettable mother and daughter at the center of Brass are as bright and tough as the metal itself, and Xhenet Aliu depicts their parallel journeys with equal parts grit and tenderness. A fierce, big-hearted, unflinching debut.”

Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

“Xhenet Aliu is ferociously talented. She’s written a story so scathingly honest and created characters so perfectly real that it left me breathless with admiration. There is no false sentiment here, no misplaced word, just a novel that pulses with a restless energy, a novel that pulses with life.”

Cristina Henriquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

“Blazing with humor, wisdom, and searing sensitivity, BRASS simply electrifies. Lulu and Elsie’s story of chasing and, at times, going against one’s wildest instincts, is hypnotic, addicting, and by the novel’s heartrending conclusion, ferociously unforgettable. Xhenet Aliu is a fearless revelation of a writer whose prose will seep into your bones.”

Patricia Engel, author of The Veins of the Ocean

“Brass is about the thorny, unruly love that grows between mothers and daughters, from a voice so confident and assured, it is a pleasure to encounter on every page. Reading this book is like eavesdropping on a rude, erudite, heartbreaking conversation between loved ones late at night, in a smoke filled diner. Aliu proves adapt at precisely tracing the intricacies of family life and class desperation.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

“Told in expertly dueling voices demanding to be heard, this powerhouse debut novel demonstrates just how much the people and the places that shaped us will always be the biggest mysteries in our lives. We knew from her stories in Domesticated Wild Things that Aliu is a force on the page; in Brass, her immense gift for voice soars. A must-read for those of us who’ve ever tried–and are still trying–to truly understand someone we’re meant to love.”

Jennine Capó Crucet, author of Make Your Home Among Strangers

Brass will deepen your faith in the radical power of storytelling–this book is that big-hearted and brainy and brave. Xhenet Aliu is a blazingly talented writer–I’ve long admired her sharply empathetic eye for human behavior, her mordant wit–and with Brass she has given us readers an all-together wondrous gift.”

Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me