Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

27 thoughts on “Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’”

  1. Nice review. As a Canadian I am terrible at reading CanLit. But I do have a lovely hardcover copy of this (signed) that I must get to before long. I met David last October and we had a great chat, about reading international translated literature of all things!

    1. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I can’t understand why more Canadian fiction isn’t published here in the UK, after all much of it is in English so no need for translation costs.

      1. Enjoy Spain! I live on the Valencia/Alicante border and, at the moment, am immersed in the heady, sweet scent of the orange blossom from the mile-upon-mile of groves we have here, as well as the cherry blossom valley in full bloom a few miles away. Heaven on a stick

  2. Lovely review. I have an ARC of this one and kept wondering if, as good as it looks, it will be too painful – will read it when I’m ready for a big cry!

  3. I love this book, and I still have no idea how it didn’t make the short list. He spent ten years writing it, and it shows. The final page hit me so hard.

  4. BookishBeck’s recent review reminded me that I hadn’t seen yours, so I’ve gone hunting to see what you thought (somehow I missed it). It sounds like we both enjoyed it for similar reasons; the aspect of the story which I hadn’t anticipated is gently alluded to in your summary (a significance that surprised me because it seemed to also be a surprise to one of the characters) and it brought a tenderness to the story which made the story even more moving for me. I also really appreciated the importance cast on the spot of wilderness within the city; I’ve only been hiking on those trails once, but it’s beautiful there. If you enjoyed both this and The Break, have you read anything by Anosh Irani? I’ve only read The Parcel, though, and I’m not sure if that’s the best place to begin with his stuff; he’s on my list to explore in more detail this year. There is something about the way that both Chariandry and Vermette deal with grief which I think exists in Irani’s work too. Did you enjoy Brother enough to read another of Chariandry’s if it were available overseas?

    1. I didn’t want to mention that explicitly as I felt I was wandering off into spoiler territory but it did illuminate the brothers’ relationship, I felt. I haven’t come across Irani but I’m still adding to the list for the Canadian bookseller that you kindly sought out for me so can include his name on that if his work isn’t available here. Happy to hear any recommendations if you do explore his writing further. And, yes, I did!

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