Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Initial reaction: I enjoyed every moment of this novel because it was an emotional and realistic journey with a strong protagonist whose narrative voice stayed with me long after I finished the story. It’s a difficult read to swallow in places because of the actions of some of the characters, but in the end, I was rooting for Fabiola to find her footing.

Full review:

I have so many emotions upon finishing “American Street” – and that’s a very good thing.

It’s a story with many layers to its narrative, brought to life by the vivid narration and characterization throughout. “American Street” tells the story of Fabiola, a Haitian immigrant arriving in the United States, but separated from her mother along the way when she’s detained by authorities at the airport. Fabiola ends up in Detroit, living with her aunt and three cousins as she tries to adjust to life in America between waiting for efforts to get her mother back and pursuing her own ends to make it happen. This is only part of the story, as Fabiola reflects on her experiences in Haiti, struggles to fit in alongside her cousins at school, discovers some tough truths involving the people around her, both friends and enemies alike.

I think Fabiola is one of the most well rounded and voiced protagonists I’ve read in a YA work in a long time. She’s fiercely loyal to her family, faith (she practices Voudou, which is probably one of the few times it’s actually portrayed in a non-stereotypical way that I’ve seen in many works, including YA), and goals. She’s not without flaws, and the way she recounts her experiences in Haiti alongside her difficult adjustment to life in Detroit is vibrant and vivid. The relationship between her and her cousins (Primadonna, Chantal, and Pri) is wonderfully done. I liked the rolling banter between them in places, allowing the reader to get to know them in the way that is close to Fabiola, but also for their own motivations. The narrative allows a deeper eye into some of the side-characters through monologue snippets delivered between chapters in a seamless way. I was even taken by the scenes of romance and relationship building that I saw through the narrative. The diversity of the characterization feels natural, well established, and refreshing to read in many respects.

I’ll admit “American Street” hit me hard on a number of emotional levels because of the way the story unfolds and the turns of conflict. The narrative takes an honest look at relationship abuse, drug dealing and abuse, inner-city life, cultural clashes, among a number of other subjects. One could say that in some ways, there quite a few threads that aren’t completely tied, but its Fabiola’s resilience and transformation that carries the momentum of the story despite places where the story could’ve had better closure. The weight of Fabiola’s decisions also factor into the story and give some raw moments of grief and coming to terms that really stood out for me. In the end, I really appreciated the narrative journey that “American Street” took me on, and it’s one I’d definitely read again.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

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