This book has been on the periphery of my consciousness for most of my adult life. However, it was not on the syllabus when I was at school or at university, which may explain my failure to read it until now. I am so glad that I finally decided to listen to the excellent audiobook narrated by Kate Burton. I wish I had not left it so long, because I love this novel. Rarely do I find myself both laughing out loud and weeping while reading the one book (or, as in this case, listening to an audiobook). With this one, I did both frequently.
The story of Francie Nolan's childhood and young womanhood, living in a poor family in 1900s Willamsburg in Brooklyn is extraordinary. Smith, who drew on her own background when writing the book, unflinchingly portrays poverty, hunger, alcoholism and unemployment. Her characters are real people, with dreams, hopes and aspirations and also with flaws. Time and place are vividly evoked and Brooklyn is as much a character in the novel as the Nolan family and their relatives.
Smith manages to give the impression of a memoir - of events remembered rather than events imagined. Most of the narrative is related from Francie's point of view. However, the points of view of other characters, particularly that of Francie's mother Katie, are also explored. The switching of point of view is both a strength and a weakness of the novel. Its adds to the reader's understanding of and compassion for secondary characters. However, it also disturbs the sense of the novel being a memoir.
If I had any other criticism to make, it would be that the novel is on the long side for its content. That said, as I finished listening to it, I wished that I was still in Williamsburg with smart, perceptive, creative Francie, her tough, determined and resourceful mother Katie, her kind, loving, but fatally flawed father Johnny, her brother, her aunts, her grandmother and all of the other people who make up Francie's world.
This is a beautiful novel and Kate Burton is a wonderful narrator. I'm very glad that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has moved from the periphery of my consciousness to somewhere more central. I am also very glad that I got to spend time with Francie Nolan and her family. They will stay with me for a long time.