Book Review: ‘Witness,’ by Jamel Brinkley

5/5 - (10 votes)

Jamel Brinkley’s second collection of stories, “Witness,” begins with an epigraph from James Baldwin that explores the thin line between being a witness and an actor. However, Brinkley’s stories challenge this notion, revealing that witnessing and acting are intertwined. Set in Brooklyn, these ten thought-provoking stories feature a diverse range of characters, including animal rescue volunteers, florists, ghosts, and UPS workers.

Throughout the collection, the act of witnessing is emphasized through physical sight. Characters both see and are seen, experiencing various emotions when observed by others. In one story, a young man reflects on the novelty of being noticed, while in another, a daughter questions her mother’s stare as an intrusion. Brinkley delves deeper, revealing that there is more to witnessing than meets the eye. It extends beyond the physical realm and connects to the spiritual, as seen in “Witness,” where a woman tells her brother that she can now see his true nature.

Stylistically, Brinkley’s stories begin abruptly, immersing readers in a moving current without superfluous details. His prose is sharp and concise, getting right to the heart of the matter. For example, one story opens with a description of Helena Porter’s room, comparing it to a lady’s armpit—neat, bare, and inaccessible to enemies or strangers.

This direct approach, coupled with Brinkley’s powerful sentences, creates a captivating and impactful reading experience. There are moments of sudden revelation that bring the intensity to a halt, such as in “The Happiest House on Union Street,” where the reason for an 8-year-old character’s hospitalization is revealed. These moments highlight the interconnectedness of the witness and the spectacle, emphasizing that participating in any capacity comes at a cost.

While being a witness can be dangerous, Brinkley also highlights the dangers of lacking witnesses. This absence raises questions about who gets to control and shape history. This theme is exemplified in “Comfort,” where a young woman grapples with the death of her brother, who was killed by a police officer found not guilty. The story challenges the credibility of testimonies and who holds the truth.

Brinkley’s versatility as a writer shines through in this collection. He navigates between humor, sorrow, introspection, and nostalgia, creating stories that resonate with readers’ emotions and memories. Each story is a precious gift, reminding us that we are both the audience and the actors in life’s stage, even when unaware. We are forever witnesses and the witnessed.

In conclusion, Jamel Brinkley’s “Witness” is a masterful collection of stories that explores the intersecting roles of witnesses and actors. Through captivating storytelling and powerful prose, Brinkley delves into the complexities of perception and the importance of being seen. These stories leave a lasting impact, reminding readers of their shared humanity and the significance of bearing witness. “Witness” is a must-read for those seeking thought-provoking literature that challenges traditional narratives.

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