Brookland A Novel

Emily Barton




Trade Paperback

496 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Since her girlhood, Prudence Winship has gazed across the tidal straits from her home in Brooklyn to the city of Manhattan and yearned to bridge the distance. Now, established as the owner of the enormously successful gin distillery she inherited from her father, she can begin to realize her dream.

Set in eighteenth-century Brooklyn, this is the story of a determined and intelligent woman who is consumed by a vision of a bridge: a gargantuan construction of timber and masonry she devises to cross the East River in a single, magnificent span. With the help of the local surveyor, Benjamin Horsfield, and her sisters—the high-spirited, obstreperous Tem, who works with her in the distillery, and the silent, uncanny Pearl—she fires the imaginations of the people of Brooklyn and New York by promising them a bridge that will meet their most pressing practical needs while being one of the most ambitious public works ever attempted. Prue's own life and the life of the bridge become inextricably bound together as the costs of the bridge, both financial and human, rise beyond her direst expectations.


Praise for Brookland

"Marvelous . . . So much modern fiction thinks small, feels small. Emily Barton will never be accused of either . . . Large and complex storytelling . . . Brookland turns out to be a story not just of risk, daring and ambition but of the courage to fail—and the courage to live on after failing."—Christopher Corbett, The New York Times Book Review

"A marvelously engrossing historical novel . . . [Emily Barton] has armed [her] imagination with facts and tone that realistically evoke 18th century New York in an utterly convincing and involving way . . . In Brookland, [she] has taken an elegant way with questions of thought-provoking substance and has made a very fine and satisfying novel. And, if there is heartbreak at its end, those hearts are broken over things that mattered then—and still."—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

"With her poignant novel, Barton turns imagination and luminous prose into precision instruments that measure how cracks in a foundation can undo the most solid-seeming of structures."—The Christian Science Monitor

"[A] captivating tale . . . in seamless, period-rich prose."—Vogue

"Brookland is a marvelously beguiling novel. From first elegant page to last, Emily Barton has rendered an enticing story, one both moving and entertaining at every level. It's a dazzling and thrilling read, truly an exemplar of modern literature."—Katharine Weber, author of The Little Women

"Emily Barton is a literary inventor on the order of Thomas Pynchon or John Barth. In Brookland, she has made a time machine for us to travel back to Brooklyn in the eighteenth century, where we accompany Prudence Winship on a remarkable apprenticeship and a still more extraordinary career. We'll meet everyone worth knowing and learn everything worth learning, not only about gin and bridge-building but also about sisters and fathers and husbands and the power of the imagination to shape the world. Barton's story is patient, tender, encyclopedic, and completely absorbing."—Paul LaFarge, author of Haussmann, or the Distinction

"A magnificent epic . . . Barton's second novel is a breathtaking, heartbreaking mix of gender-busting innovation and the story of decent people living enormous lives in a close family whose secrets lead to explosive tragedy. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)

"An 18th-century businesswoman plans to build a bridge across the East River connecting Manhattan with the villages then known as 'Brookland,' in New York author Barton's industriously researched second novel. In a narrative that juxtaposes precise reminiscences with letters written to her married daughter Recompense, Prudence Winship Horsfield tells how she inherited the profitable gin distillery created by her father, Matthias Winship; overcame her own weaknesses and the envious condescension of men who resented her boldness; and realized an improbable dream that eventually failed to weather a hard winter. Prudence is a formidable character who quickly learns the intricacies of the distilling process (while still a pre-adolescent), achieves a successful marriage to her childhood friend Ben Horsfield (a trained surveyor, and her bridge-building partner) and earns the financial backing of tight-fisted state politicians. But there are darker currents in 'Prue's' life, directed by her brusque, unloving temperament. The 'curse' young Prue pronounced on her unborn sister Pearl seems to have caused the 'affliction' that robs Pearl of speech, and likewise poisons Prue's relationships with her mother Roxana, the embattled Pearl and youngest sister 'Tem'(perance), Prue's temperamental opposite. Still, Prue perseveres, labors, studies (learning that she can employ 'the principle of the lever' to create her bridge). But destiny is not denied. Delays, fatal accidents and a new governor's withdrawal of funding, all work their will. A frustrated Prue angrily threatens the longsuffering Pearl's last best hope for happiness. And everything Prue had embraced and envisioned proves as unstable as it had once seemed impermeable. No historical novel in recent memory has amassed such an imposing wealth of rich period detail, and few novels of any genre extend an increasingly absorbing story to such a powerful, sorrowful conclusion. A brilliant book that should be a strong Pulitzer Prize contender."—Kirkus Reviews

"From the author of the highly regarded The Testament of Yves Gundron comes a new historical epic that charts the often-bumpy course of one woman's extraordinary vision of the future. Effectively hemmed in by the East River, most residents of colonial Brooklyn regard Manhattan as a tantalizing, idyllic city that lies just beyond their prosaic grasp. For Prue Winship, the daughter of a successful gin distiller, literally bridging the gap between 'Brookland' and Manhattan becomes the goal for which she willingly sacrifices her youth, her business, and her family. After taking over the management of the distillery in the late eighteenth century, Prue becomes obsessed with the idea of spanning the river with a suspension bridge. Although constructing such a massive overpass is seemingly beyond the engineering realities of the times, she is joined in her quixotic quest to breach the physical and psychological divide by a handful of farsighted thinkers, including her own husband. Eventually achieving the unimaginable, their initial success exacts a tragic emotional and spiritual toll when the bridge collapses and funds cannot be secured to rebuild it. Barton expertly conjures up a time and place in which one woman unflinchingly fought against tremendous social strictures to pursue a magnificent ambition."—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

At the close of the workday on Thursday the twenty-fourth of January, 1822, Prue Winship sat down at the large desk in the countinghouse of Winship Daughters Gin to write a letter to her daughter, Recompense. The power train...

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  • Emily Barton

  • Emily Barton earned her B.A. in English literature from Harvard University and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Story and American Short Fiction, and her first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron—which won the Bard Fiction Prize and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship—was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Month, and was nominated for Britain's Guardian Fiction Prize. She has taught writing and humanities at Bard College, and was a writer-in-residence at the New School in 2005-06. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Emily Barton Copyright Greg Martin
    Emily Barton




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