Reviews of Witness by Jamel Brinkley



by Jamel Brinkley

Witness by Jamel Brinkley X
Witness by Jamel Brinkley
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  • Published:
    Aug 2023, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jacob Lenz-Avila
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About this Book

Book Summary

From National Book Award finalist Jamel Brinkley, Witness is an elegant, insistent narrative of actions taken and not taken.

What does it mean to take action? To bear witness? What does it cost?

In these ten stories, each set in the changing landscapes of contemporary New York City, a range of characters―from children to grandmothers to ghosts―live through the responsibility of perceiving and the moral challenge of speaking up or taking action. Though they strive to connect, to remember, to stand up for, and to really see each other, they often fall short, and the structures they build around these ambitions and failures shape not only their own futures but the legacies and prospects of their families and their city.

In its portraits of families and friendships lost and found, the paradox of intimacy, the long shadow of grief, the meaning of home, Witness enacts its own testimony. Here is a world where fortunes can be made and stolen in just a few generations, where strangers might sometimes show kindness while those we trust―doctors, employers, siblings―too often turn away, where joy comes in snatches: flowers on a windowsill, dancing in the street, glimpsing your purpose, change on the horizon.

With prose as upendingly beautiful as it is artfully, seamlessly crafted, Jamel Brinkley offers nothing less than the full scope of life and death and change in the great, unending drama of the city.


Who knew that old-ass Headass was capable of even greater feats of headassery? Our little crew had become accustomed long ago to his foolishness, the imbecilic way he walked around Bed-Stuy with his lips swelled up, duh-duh, all the various look-at-me antics. We were bored with him, he was dull, the five of us paid him no mind. He might as well have been a fire hydrant. It had ceased to affect us when he interrupted our hangs in the park by barking out one of his nonsensical jokes, every punch line a non sequitur, or by unzipping his dusty jeans and pulling forth from the opening, inch by inch, the ashiness of his dick. By the time we started high school, his pratfalls on the basketball court while a couple of us tried to hoop were no longer amusing—we just dribbled around him and told him to go bother people his own age—and when he would dig in the trash for scraps of pizza or the half-eaten remains of fried-hard chicken wings, clowning wasn't worth it...

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While individual moments are well-observed and full of empathy and life—like the description of the high schoolers walking side by side down the street "incandescent with jokes and laughter, five lit bulbs on a string"—each story is greater than the sum of its parts. They build and build to the point that they defy categorization. Brinkley's style is a worthy vehicle for his wide-ranging sensibility, sliding from conversational play ("headassery" describes Headass' awkward behavior) to casual insight ("she was playing dumb by playing smart") to nerdy logophilia: when his mother dismisses a houseplant as artificial, the child in "That Particular Sunday" understands the word "in Latin sense, a way of praising the tree as a work of art."..continued

Full Review Members Only (895 words)

(Reviewed by Jacob Lenz-Avila).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
Exceptional...[Witness journeys] deep into the human heart with precise language and a generous spirit.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Packed with incident, insight and emotion...Supremely accomplished...[with] verve, poise and moments of unexpected beauty...Brinkley is shaping up to be one of the most impressive contemporary practitioners of short stories.

[Witness] contains stories about people who choose to speak on behalf of others—or fail to do so. Brinkley is immensely talented, making this one of the year's most anticipated works of American fiction.

The Boston Globe
These brilliant and heart-wrenching stories, bound by the act of bearing witness, capture moments of loss and grief.

One of the finest young writers working today... Brinkley is a skilled, patient prose stylist and deft writer of character who isn't afraid to engage with the difficult moral complexity of contemporary life. Reading Witness will make you consider your place in the world as both a bystander and a participant.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Short stories that in their depth of feeling, perception, and sense of place affirm their author's bright promise...Brinkley's stories carry a rich veneer worthy of such exemplars of the form as Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, and James Alan McPherson...After just two collections, Brinkley may already be a grand master of the short story.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[D]azzling...Brinkley crafts unforgettable portraits, humming with barely restrained tension, of Black men and women exploring what it means to be part of families and communities that are awash in hope and disappointment alike. These intimate vignettes have the power to move readers.

Remarkable...Offer[s] compelling explorations of life's borderlands and the quietly stunning revelations that can be found there.

Author Blurb Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House
In Witness, Jamel Brinkley explores the longings and fears of his characters with a tenderness and generosity of spirit that makes the reader hurt when they hurt, and rejoice in life's surprising moments of joy alongside them. He renders worlds both familiar and new with precision and clarity, showing the many ways that place has the power to mark people, whether they be young boys, old men or the people society pushes to its margins. Read Witness and allow yourself the pleasure of seeing the world as Brinkley sees it.

Author Blurb Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
Jamel Brinkley is one of the best story writers we have. Witness is a book of psychological acuity, of graceful sentences, of devastation and heart. Read everything this man writes, and know the world anew.

Author Blurb Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose
Jamel Brinkley reminds one of iconic short-story writers Edward P. Jones and Mavis Gallant. His characters, full of mysteries and secrets, do not strive to be something larger than life, nor do they allow themselves to be reduced into categorizable and explicable figures. Each story in Witness brings a novel's worth of richness and complexity. This is a dazzling collection by a masterful storyteller.

Reader Reviews

prem singh

Witness Stories
Gemmell Brinkley's 'Witness: Stories' is a literary journey into the intricacies of human existence, a mosaic of stories that resonate with the beating heart of contemporary New York City. With prose that dances between the elegant and the insistent,...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The World of Food Delivery App Work

Bicycle courier in New York City with delivery bags, riding past ads and storefronts alongside traffic on 8th Avenue during a rainy day One story in Jamel Brinkley's collection Witness is about a woman who keeps receiving friendly notes from the same food delivery person and drafts long, personal letters in reply. In her letters, Gloria, a room service server at a hotel, reflects that food delivery apps are responsible for eliminating jobs like hers, but expresses solidarity with and sympathy for her courier: "As if we didn't know how inadequately your people get paid. As if we couldn't imagine how your people must hope and pray never to fall seriously ill."

The situation of food delivery workers on internet platforms is one of "systematic exploitation and dismal working conditions," according to a 2022 study of couriers in India published in the National Library of ...

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