‘Brother’ by David Chariandy

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Derek Eidse 

I’ve heard that the best place to begin with a new book is with its physicality: how it sits in space, how it feels in your hands, how its cover art and typeface draw you in. Contrary to a popular idiom regarding books and covers, many a novel does not make it past this critical stage. For me, this one did.

The dust jacket of David Chariandy’s second novel, Brother, hints at a depth of story that enticed me. A turntable, with the pitch adjust set to low and slow, and the needle on the first track, contrasts with whimsical, zen-doodlesque leaves and flowers. The recurring visual motif of birds on wires whispers of thematic forays into freedom and flight, and perhaps hints at clashing themes of confinement and despair.

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
—Leonard Cohen

Brother, which has been shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is set in The Park, “a place where inhabitants write fake addresses on job applications out of fear that acknowledging a connection to The Park will jeopardize their already complicated lives.” The story moves like a river, whose big loopy bends meander away, into the past, and then back to the present—two distinct time periods, one decade apart. The first is the summer that “rap went mainstream” and a fatal shooting destabilized the tenuous lives of brothers Michael and Francis and their hard-working single mother, Ruth. The second is ten years later, as unresolved grief and remembrance resurface with the visit of Michael’s high school girlfriend, Aisha.

Like the turntable on the cover, the first two-thirds of the book are set to a low, slow simmer. Chariandy establishes Michael as a smart, but slightly awkward child, while his brother Francis is described as a confident character who could really read—not just books, but situations, faces and especially their mother—their self-sacrificing mother, who juggles jobs, long bus rides and the care of the boys while denying her own needs. This family is enduring a hard but not extraordinary life. The boys know, when making orange juice, “to use use five cans of water to dilute the concentrate, never three as the fool instructions on the can said.” But they can still be kids, building forts and hideaways down in the ravine next to the freeway, and when they’re home alone, watching foreign films for “the promise of a couple seconds of boob.”

A sense of foreboding dominates the developing story as Chariandy loops from the past to the present, making multiple references to Francis’s absence and Ruth’s resulting emotional immobilization. Past: “One morning, I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.” Present: “She set the table using the good napkins and cutlery, and I kept quiet when she set a third plate, a third glass of water with a drop of lemon juice.” These allusions start to weigh pretty heavily on the reader, as when Ruth attempts to cook a traditional meal on the absent Francis’ birthday, and then calls the operator, asking for someone to “please help me reach him.” This overarching sorrow makes Brother a raw and aching narrative.

As the story unfolds, this family, that has carried the heavy weight of survival, is thrown headlong into grief. The low simmer becomes a boil on a tumultuous day that ends with a tragic death caused by a police shooting. As I read this heartbreaking scene, the news, in my neighbourhood, was of a police-shooting down the street–a former student of a fellow teacher. This is a grim reality in places like Winnipeg’s North End, where the intersection of too little power for some and too much for others often results in destruction and hopelessness.

Amidst the intensity of the final pages, I sought out Nina Simone’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” to distract myself; in Brother, Francis, with Aisha’s father, used to listen to classic vinyl, and this was a regular song on their rotation. Simone’s voice is soaked with a poetic sorrow very similar to Chariandy’s devastating prose. The English translation of the key lyric is:

If you leave me, I will unbecome myself /
And become the shadow of your shadow

Chariandy’s description of his characters’ journey through grief contains a valuable lesson: no matter how deep and dark the sadness is, sometimes you have to step into it, to step out.

As I finished the book, a moth was flitting around my living room, transported indoors earlier in the day with a load of firewood. The soft pot lights were a sad, weak substitute for sunshine,  but the moth kept flying from one to the other hoping for freedom, when there was none to be had. It ended up sitting on the edge of a potted plant like a bird on a wire, like a skipping record, like a shadow of a shadow, resigned to its confinement until someone helped it to freedom.

Brother is a quick read at only 180 pages, but the term “quick read” belies its gravity. According to Chariandy, the novel took him a long time to write, and I can guarantee that its tenderly written characters, delicately crafted dialogue, precise pacing, and stirring, old-soul tone, will sit in my heart and mind for a long time.

McClelland & Stewart | 180 pages | $25.00 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0771022906

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Derek Eidse

Derek Eidse is a high school teacher at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.