A review of Union Square by Adrian Koesters

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Union Square
By Adrian Koester
Apprentice House Press
Paperback: 238 pages, Oct 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1627201933

Union Square is a novel which takes the reader into the past, to the year 1952. The reader will be transported to a neighbourhood southwest of Baltimore in the USA. Through the skilled pen (nowadays I should say computer) of Koesters we get to know a group of people. Lives woven in an intricate life drama for the simple fact that destiny have brought them together to a part of the city which was once synonymous with success and fortune. No longer a place for the rich Union Square is the theatre were poverty, secrets, abuse and misery unfold.

This book is reminiscent of the style of the film noir with sordid storylines, tragic antiheroes, and cynical characters but without the crime and murder element yet coloured by violence and abuse. This makes Union Square a fascinating book with its array of believable characters, their dramas and hopes.

It is incredible how much can happen to the lives of five people and their surrounding neighbours in four days and how each life can touch others. The book is divided into five sections or parts, each section is narrated from one particular character’s point of view and a final part, titled Palm Sunday when all of the characters converge into a final act.

Koesters talent is demonstrated in the vivid descriptions of characters and events. Each small situation is brought to life with evocative realism.
In Young Mr Emerson, the reader is faced with the desperation of Young’s father to find the money that will meet his son’s needs to survive and allow him to escape:

He grunted, turned the bag inside out, and tore at the silk lining of it with his teeth, which nearly made Young cry, as if he were watching his father take his teeth to his mother’s very flesh. But then Big was proved to be right, for paper cash came out of the slit in the silk like a caesarean birth, more than one hundred dollars, and Big set them on the table as if they had been holy cards and he a convert or a grandmother. (Page 18)

As a psychologist I find all the characters in Union Square fascinating, they evoke many emotions, from surprise to disgust and anger. Carmen is one of the characters that raise ambivalence about her, you want to dislike her but also feel sorry for her. Here is a life confronted with the cruel realities of survival coloured by drugs, alcohol and sex.

Sexual abuse, hallucinations and violence go hand in hand with the sadness of a young life that searches through memories as he searches for meaning day-by-day. Lost moments and anger buried in the past of Paddy Dolan, emerge in a disgusting act that redeems him. In this section of the book, and in others, the readers will find very fine descriptions of the environment, like the following:

By God, he was hungry. He stood, looked through the handful of scattered trees over the houses on Hollins. That newspaperman still lived over there, but he was old, he was past it. Gave some respectability to the place though. He scanned the row of pristine houses, he immaculate white and red steps that led up to each, the molding that settled above each topmost floor. The sun dappling through the thin limbs of the park trees on to the brick fronts in the slant of the early afternoon. (Page 72)

Poor Petie! You cannot but feel sorry for him. Is he an innocent? Is he silly? Is he so sure of himself? In this section there are very interesting dialogues, emotions and issues that readers will find very interesting. The street language, in Petie’s section and in the whole book, is very well achieved, here is an example:

“Give me a cigarette. What did you get?”
“Camels. I been wanting me a Camel since I don’t know what.”
“ You want me to light it for you?”
“Jesus, asshole, what are you, my mother? I got a hand, it’s why I wash it, for Christ’s sake. Just light me up a match once before I beat your face in.” (Page 111)

Growing into womanhood is portrayed in Catherine. The awakening of the senses, the desire to be liked and to be a sexual being, the confusion, the need for independence, defiance of parents, the changes to the body, all that is part of being an adolescent is found in this young character. Here is Catherine exploring her growing body:

She went down the hall to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Her two front teeth were a little crooked and a little off. She pressed the front of her pajama top over her chest. There wasn’t much to make silhouette of. She was sort of afraid to touch any place else, so she settled for staring at her face. There was a white line from the right corner of her mouth down to her face. There was a white line from the right corner of her mouth down to her chin from when she had drooled in the night. Her bangs were crooked, she hadn’t noticed that before. Her eyebrows were too square and bushy. Her skin was nice, pale and roses in the cheeks.” (Page 147)

Koester is also a poet, her talents as a poet are shown in many of the passages of Union Square. Nowadays, when writers have to be very careful about discriminating in text and the language used in the text, it shook me to read words like ‘negroes’ and ‘niggas’ but of course these words are appropriate to represent those gone years.

Violence goes hand-in-hand with ignorance, as is the use of coal and discriminatory words, in the 50s we were still learning about the environment and respect for others, Union Square captures the innocence of those years. Union Square will delight the most demanding reader.

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello, is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has written four books of poetry, three novels and a play. She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.