Synopses & Reviews
Abel Crofton is searching for salvation. His father, an abusive jazz musician, has just passed away from cirrhosis of the liver, and Abel yearns to find the Dutch mother he never knew. Believing she still lives in the Netherlands, he leaves his home in Harlem for the town just south of Amsterdam from which the famed Black American neighborhood takes its name: Haarlem.
Plagued by loneliness and desperate longings for a drink—reminders of his continuing struggle even after a dozen years of sobriety—Abel meets Sophie, a waitress in a cafe near his hotel. Of Dutch-Caribbean descent, Sophie and her sister, Saskia, face struggles of their own, but she agrees to help Abel find his mother. With Sophie by his side, he enters a dangerous underworld where he discovers startling secrets about his family life and his father’s past that threaten to destroy whatever hope he has left.
A tightly paced page-turner filled with searing language and archetypal biblical reflections, Heather Neff’s Haarlem is another great leap forward in a writing career that holds unlimited promise.
“The only thing thatll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”
So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker whos struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother hes never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed African-American neighborhood takes its name.
As Abel ventures into more new territory, he also takes on his identity as a Black man, his rough childhood in Harlem, New York, his relationship to his bitter father, and his battle with addiction. The questions around his life only get more complicated after he meets a coldly direct waitress and a ragged jazz musician, both also bearing major scars from their pasts. The road leads to Haarlem for them as well.
Welcome to Abels search for salvation in another tight page turner from Heather Neff.
About the Author
HEATHER NEFF is a professor of literature of the African diaspora and the author of the novels Blackgammon, Wisdom, and Accident of Birth (Harlem Moon).
Reading Group Guide
Haarlem examines a mans redemption through his exploration of a new terrain and his discovery of new family members as he grapples with the nightmares of his past. The questions that follow are meant to enhance your discussion of the novel and spark conversation about Abels road to recovery.
1. What are the events in Abels life that have most influenced his ability to love another person?
2. What factors contributed to Abels decision to return to the Netherlands and try to find his mother?
3. How has Abels struggle with alcoholism affected his ability to interact with others?
4. Abel tells Serge that he doesnt believe in “that invisible white man in the sky.” What are some of the other ways that Serge suggests that Abel might think of his Higher Power?
5. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, Abel is impressed by the clean, crime-free appearance of the city. How does this impression change over time?
6. How did Sophie come to live in Amsterdam, and how does her past continue to influence her life?
7. How is Abels relationship with Sophie different from his relationships with other women?
8. How does Abel change when he finds his mother?
9. How does learning about August Sebastian affect Abel? How do Abels feelings about his brother develop over the course of the novel?
10. What does Sophie teach Abel? Does Sophie learn anything from him?
11. The city of Amsterdam seems very different in many ways from New York. What new perspectives does Abel gain about his life as he spends time in Amsterdam?
12. How are issues of race and ethnicity depicted in Haarlem? How is Sophies understanding of herself as a Black woman different from that of African-Americans?
13. What do we learn of August Sebastians past? How does that information influence your perception of him?
14. Which Bible stories are referenced in Haarlem?
15. According to the novel, what are some of the differences in the ways that drugs and alcohol are consumed in the United States and the Netherlands? What are the differences in the ways the two nations respond to problems of addiction?
16. How does Abels recovery from alcoholism grow through his relationships with his mother? Sophie? Serge? His brother?
17. How important are Twelve-Step Programs in the recovery of the main characters in this novel?
18. How has Abel changed by the end of the novel? What choices has he made, and how will those choices affect the lives of those around him?
19. At the end of the novel Abel says, “Sometimes it hurts to think about where I came from. But now I know its the only way to understand how far Ive come.” How is this true?
“Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling.”
–Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams
The author recently took some time to answer our questions about HAARLEM.
Black Ink: This book marks a departure for you from your earlier books like Wisdom and Accident of Birth. Can you tell us the motivation or impetus for this change?
Heather Neff: 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 is, in its turn, 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.
BI: What connections will the reader find between Manhattan’s Harlem and Dutch Haarlem?
HN: 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.
BI: HAARLEM is obviously a work of fiction, but its themes of addiction and recovery resonate powerfully. Is there a stigma in the Black community against acknowledging addiction and entering recovery? If so, what is your purpose in addressing the issue in your fiction?
HN: 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.
BI: What is the import of racial identity in HAARLEM, and how do those notions of identity differ among the main characters?
HN: 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 new understanding of what it means to be Black living in Europe.
BI: How do biblical archetypes operate in HAARLEM?
HN: HAARLEM looks specifically at two biblical stories dealing with the tensions that divide brothers–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 different manner from his archetypical prototypes.