In her latest novel, What’s Mine and Yours, Naima Coster joins writers like Britt Bennett, author of The Vanishing Half, in exploring questions of race, identity, and belonging. These questions are played out as a community in the Piedmont region of North Carolina integrates the schools, causing an outcry among residents. This struggle is seen through the eyes of Gee, a Black student whose father was murdered when he was young, and Noelle, a half-Latina girl, whose white mother leads the charge against integration.
This is familiar ground for Coster, whose debut novel, Halsey Street, was a story of estrangement and reconciliation that follows the effects of gentrification on the life of a family and the Brooklyn neighborhood where they reside. The influence of place in people’s lives and the opportunities and limitations that go with that are a central theme of What’s Mine and Yours. Lack of opportunity is a prime mover in the lives of the characters. Gee’s father is killed before he can launch a business that could change his son’s fortunes, while Noelle’s mother Lacey May resorts to living with a man she doesn’t love so her children don’t go hungry.
Coster paints Gee’s anguish over his father’s death in vivid detail, leaving no doubt that his life is marked from that point forward:
Gee wedged himself between the grown-up bodies to kneel next to his daddy. He felt his mother lifting him away. He fought and kicked to stay close. She lost her grip on him, and he sank nearer to him, the one he loved. He used his hands to pitch his father’s shoulders, his pretty ironed shirt, his favorite, red-and-pink plaid. Gee shook him, called out to him, but he stayed still. He stuck his hand underneath his daddy’s body, to prop him up, so he could hear. Daddy, he said. Daddy. When his hand came back to him it was shining with blood.
The story is told in a kaleidoscopic fashion, shifting in time and point of view. This yields an accumulation of understanding about the characters and their motives that can be both intriguing and frustrating. One puzzling aspect is Coster’s decision to keep the reader in the dark until late in the story that Gee is also Nelson, the man readers come to know as Noelle’s wandering husband.
Coster does a masterful job building even minor characters that are full of opinions and foibles. I was particularly taken with her portrayal of Robbie, Noelle’s father, a hopeless addict, who means well but can’t get out of his own way.
At its heart, the novel is a story of legacy, identity, and awkward coexistence. Coster’s Noelle offers an insightful take on the white people around her struggling to come to terms with a changing social landscape:
They’d be decent in some ways; they’d astonish her with how they seemed to keep up with the news, the shifting language around identity and race. Once she’d even overheard Lacey May refer to Alma as a person of color. But they’d be incensed, too, by the encroachments they saw on their world — the stars cast in movie franchises they had formerly adored, the people who had the nerve to go to marches and complain and vote in elections. They would guard everything they had, however little, as if their lives were prizes they’d rightly won that others had no right to claim.
They’d never admit how willingly they’d played their parts.
The novel is bookended with scenes with Gee. Though his is not a major voice throughout the book, Coster seems to want to it be his story, his journey from bereft boy to wounded man, one that we should pay heed to.
What’s Mine and Yours
By Naima Coster
Grand Central Publishing
Published March 2, 2021