Distilled in Brooklyn- A Fine Historical Novel

We treasure and enjoy some novelists because they offer us a world, and let us feel we can enter it like original inhabitants. It’s a going home, even if we’ve never been there before. I’ve heard of Americans so intoxicated by the novels of Thomas Hardy that they go to England just to visit what local tourist boards now call “Hardy Country.” This is Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire—it’s the old Kingdom of Wessex, or the testing ground Hardy called Egdon Heath, a place where the characters in his dark romances might first cross paths.

The holiday pretense works, up to a point. These traveling readers may hike and roam and take in 100 pages a night of The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge or Jude the Obscure. But they discover that a steep side street in some exquisite town, falling away to realms of pasture and golden distance, has been used in TV commercials for cereal, butter, crusty bread and life insurance. In fact, you can kid yourself you’ve had breakfast in Hardy Country without going anywhere. And in some ways, that’s because no one has taken up the real burden left by Hardy—of following the lives led on Egdon Heath and seeing the fate of the nation and humanity in those tales.

I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that Emily Barton is a full-fledged rival to Thomas Hardy—but Ms. Barton is only in her 30’s, the age at which Hardy had written Far from the Madding Crowd and not much else. In fact, I suspect that Ms. Barton already has more voices in her head than Hardy possessed, as well as a sturdier hope for the lives we lead. But what makes Brookland such an enormous achievement, and such a complete world in which to escape, is that this place is not Wessex (now full of antiques and cream-tea nostalgia—a dead end), but that corner of the world where the East River snakes around the edge of Manhattan island, the opportunity that Brooklyners and Americans have to inspect New York and wonder what happens there.

Prudence is the daughter of Matty Winship, a devout and proud gin-maker in Brooklyn at the time of the War of Independence. She’s a child with thoughts of death and sadness, and when she’s told that her mother could be pregnant again, her reaction is typically grim: “Father packed me off into the yard, but I knew why she was crying: Infant after infant had quit her womb, unfinished. I had learned this from Johanna, who had, I thought, intimated the foetuses might have chosen to return to God because they were unwilling to call such a gloom box as me Sis.”

Before the new baby’s birth, Prudence took her best doll, Nell, lifted up her yarn hair and hammered nails into the skull. “When I paced along the crest of Brookland’s Heights, battered Nell in hand, I raged less against the interloper than against my own mortifying rage.” The sister—named Pearl—is born with damaged vocal cords. “Even when she emerged from the womb, she could emit no sound but a rasping sigh, such as a person makes choking on a fishbone.”

And so the novel proceeds, with sisters wrapped together in kinship and guilt, forever comparing and contrasting, and as different as a human quality and a stone found in nature. But Prudence is as methodical as she is dark, and her father counts on her to succeed him in the gin-distilling business. With that information, you know the two great worlds that Brookland holds for you—not just the prospects of and from Brooklyn in the 100 years or so between the War of Independence and the building of the Roeblings’ bridge, but the intricate practice of making gin. We go with Prudence in an education that begins when she is 10, and which finally must always bump up against her own father’s insistence on the magic beyond technology and learning. There’s no end of the things that may be added to the strong spirit. At one point she wonders: attar of lavender?

“‘Can do, but it needn’t,’ [her father] said. She knew her eyes must have widened, for he went on, ‘I’d think by now you wouldn’t be surprised to find it all so complicated. There’s no fixed receipt for gin, love, not in general. For Winship gin, I’ve my own certain way, but I still make the slightest adjustments from one batch to the next. It’s the great pleasure of the work, and the place a gin man proves ’is mettle.’”

Prudence takes over the business in her 20’s. She has her own family. And she fills the span of her mind with thoughts and images of a bridge that will one day connect Brooklyn and Manhattan—this after an early Christmas-like jaunt, a great day in the city, when the whole family walks over the ice. The bridge means easier, regularized access; it means trade; but it also means—and this becomes mysterious—a connection between the great land, the dark fields of the Republic, and the place that Prudence sometimes thinks of as the City of the Dead.

This is a long story, and one that unwinds slowly, but with stunning enough effect to satisfy the waiting. The patience to stick with Prudence comes from the steady beauty of Ms. Barton’s writing. There are two strands to the book: letters written by Prudence as a mature woman (letters that capture both the eloquence and the idiosyncrasy of early 19th-century writing by unschooled people), and a more withdrawn narrative that is seldom modern or up-to-date.

I take this backwards look—the bulk of the book—to be the largest part of Ms. Barton’s research (evidently extensive) and her talent (seemingly unlimited). And it may be worth stressing that many Hardy novels were set not in the year they were written but in a prior age, lost and enchanted. Ms. Barton’s prose voice is as good and supple as anything being written in America today. But in its “period” tone (if that’s the word), it reaffirms the unswerving adage of the novel reader: Describe a world well enough and I am its member. This is the voice of a great novelist:

“At ten years old, Prue had thought it a marvel to travel to New York City and ponder her late misconceptions about the place. At fourteen, when Congress was sitting in that city while it awaited a more permanent home, Prue’s head was full of belts and batches, but she still thought about bridging the East River. It would ensure easy shipping of gin in winter, after all; she continued to dream about it when she stood gazing out over the straits. She brooded on the terrible thing she had done to Pearl, the one truly mean-spirited action of her life thus far, and still worried someone in her family would learn her secret. Though she no longer had as much time as she’d had in childhood to ruminate on death, she remained anxious it would come for her father or her sisters, to whom she grew daily more attached. Where once New York had seemed a sacred destination, she now made deliveries there in all kinds of weather, and had twice been pitched into the cold, salty water en route. She knew the streets on which a small pedestrian was likely to be run down, and those on which she could buy candy; she knew her father’s customers by name. She accompanied him regularly to the gloomy bank. Over time, his banker—Timothy Stover, who had the carriage and voice of a Quaker but lacked the sober manner—came to answer her questions as carefully as her father’s.”

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. His next book, Nicole Kidman, will be published in the fall.