“Heather Neff’s voice is blessed with a sustained and beautiful triumph of truth that cries out with anguish, anger, and love for a people and a place. Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling.”—Ernesto Quinonez, author of Bodega Dreams and Chango’s Fire
“Neff’s gift for snappy dialogue propels this poignant book about hope: for love’s redeeming power, the ability to forgive and the gift of second chances.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Haarlem] is a book you won’t put down easily.”—Ian Smith, author of The Blackbird Papers
“Heather Neff has the ability not only to jump into the skin of her characters but to open their pores, presenting the beauty and the ugly side by side.”—Brian Keith Jackson, author of The Queen of Harlem
Abel Crofton yearns for salvation. A New York tunnel worker who is struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel begins to search for the mother he’s never known, traveling from the Harlem of his New York days to the Dutch town of Haarlem, from which the famed African American neighborhood takes its name. In HAARLEM (Harlem Moon/Broadway Books; July 2005, acclaimed novelist Heather Neff turns her formidable talent to a gritty and allegorical tale where urban fiction goes international to create a textured, thriller-like novel illustrating one man’s struggle against his own inner demons.
Plagued by loneliness and his desperate Thirst, Abel encounters Sophie, a waitress in a café near his hotel in Haarlem. Of Dutch-Caribbean descent, Sophie and her sister, Saskia, face burdens of their own, but Sophie agrees to help Abel find his mother. With Sophie by his side, Abel enters a dangerous underworld where he discovers startling secrets about his family and his father’s past that threaten to destroy whatever hope he has left. As Abel ventures further toward the truth he must confront his troubled childhood, his relationship with his father and his responsibility to others. Most importantly, Abel must face his own battle with addiction in order to reconcile himself with his past and become the man he hopes to be
A tightly paced page-turner filled with searing language and archetypal biblical reflections, Heather Neff’s HAARLEM is blazing leap forward from a “writer with depth, a sense of place, and a profound understanding of the human mind,” [Black Issues Book Review].
Haarlem, the Netherlands. Photo by the Author
Like my earlier novels Blackgammon, Wisdom and Accident of Birth, Haarlem addresses themes that are extremely important in our swiftly changing world: notions of racial and sexual identity, confronting social inequalities in both our country and in other nations, and the responsibility of individuals to the people they love. My earlier works have been set in locales as far-ranging as Detroit, Paris, the Virgin Islands and Liberia, West Africa. Haarlem, in its turn, is equally divided between the Netherlands and New York, and attempts to comment on both cultures by virtue of comparison.
The protagonist of Haarlem, however, lacks the self-confidence and sense of personal agency that have defined my earlier characters. Plagued by an impoverished and oftentimes abusive childhood, forty-five year old Abel Crofton is a blue-collar worker and recovering alcoholic who has spent much of his adult life struggling with sobriety. This ongoing challenge has dominated every aspect of his existence, keeping him in a state of near-emotional paralysis for years.
The story of Abel Crofton’s healing has given me the opportunity to focus on the finer and often-overlooked details of profound emotional trauma. Abel’s story is smaller in sweep than that of my earlier novels, but it makes up in intensity for what it surrenders in scope. The characters in Haarlem are everyday people who are trying to survive in an often brutally uncaring world — and yet their stories are as painfully beautiful as any ever told.
In many ways both “Harlems” function as sites of spiritual and emotional nurturing for Abel. Despite having passed many difficult years in New York’s Harlem, Abel is aware that the city has provided him with a sense of cultural identity, racial pride and social awareness.
It is thus the Harlem-bred man who arrives in the Netherlands, ready to discover how the Dutch Haarlem can affect his quest for wholeness. Indeed, the Old World Haarlem offers Abel an end to years of emotional exile from himself and from others.
Abel is driven by many things — a deep-seated belief, dating back to the earliest days of his childhood, that he is worthy of his mother’s love; a need to discover the roots of his father’s self-destructive behavior; a driving desire to discover the unknown, European half of his identity, and, above all, his desperation to overcome the Thirst that has dogged him throughout his twelve-years of sobriety.
As a culture we are still largely unaware of the emotional and spiritual challenges faced by individuals during the long process of recovery from an addiction. Haarlem is concerned with these challenges and the beneficial outcomes of a life productively spent in sobriety.
Many artistic works view addicts as social “Others,” exiled from mainstream culture and lost to their families and communities. In Haarlem I hope to shed some insight into the hearts and minds of all people — regardless of race — who are fighting addiction, in the hope that we will make the effort to educate ourselves and offer support to those in need.
I engaged in a great deal of reading and hours of discussion with recovering addicts over the fifteen years that I developed the manuscript for this novel. Having lived and studied in Europe and the Caribbean before returning to the United States thirteen years ago, Haarlem reflects the experiences of many voices both in America and abroad.
I strongly believe in the success of twelve-step programs and their allied support networks, and hope that we can overcome the stigmas associated with addiction and offer substantive help to all those in recovery.
Concepts of racial identity are often defined by geographic borders. Abel Crofton’s understanding of himself as an African American male gains a new resonance as he meets other Blacks in the Netherlands and begins to recognize different notions of racial identity. For example, Sophie and Saskia, whose ancestry is a mix of African and East Indian, offer Abel a completely different understanding of what it means to be Blacks living in Europe.
In stark comparison to Abel, Sophie — who is also a recovering addict — has met many of the challenges of coming to terms with her past and living wholly in the present. She is courageous, capable of great empathy and is willing to fully dedicate her life to assisting her struggling sister to escape a life of prostitution and dependency on drugs.
Sophie understands that Abel’s emotional healing must come from within, and although she is willing to help him, she insists that he take responsibility for his actions. Sophie is a woman who, despite having overcome terrific obstacles, is still evolving toward her own sense of personal completion.
Haarlem looks specifically at two biblical stories dealing with the tensions that divide bothers — the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), and the New Testament tale of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Both of these stories reflect on issues that are still relevant to modern life: sibling rivalry, the need to please a father perceived as omnipotent, and the dangers of straying into sensual temptation. The central question raised by Haarlem is whether Abel Crofton will respond to these situations in a manner different from his archetypical prototypes. I honestly believe in the power of the individual to rise above the most difficult physical and emotional challenges, and I continually strive both to recognize and honor such achievements through my work.