Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy

I’ve had David Chariandy’s Brother on my To Read list since it made the Canada Reads list but when FictionFan reviewed it I knew I needed to bump it up the list. (FictionFan’s review here.)

Brother is set in Scarborough, in the 1980s/early 90s. Scarborough was incorporated into Greater Toronto in 1999 but at this time it was its own area and was a magnet for new immigrants to Canada. I know Scarborough a little because my grandmother lived there and we visited many summers. My impression of her Scaroborough neighbourhood as compared to that depicted by Chariandy is pretty different though. Chariandy’s novel takes place in an area known as The Park. Apartments crammed with life and families, many of them new immigrants to Canada. To me, this is a very Canadian scene – people of all ethnicities and backgrounds living in a close, confused mix.

Our narrator is Michael, a first generation Trinidadian. He and his brother Francis living in the Park, raised by their mother, their father having quit the scene years ago. The main action of the story takes place when Michael and Francis are teenagers. They are close brothers, close in age, but also with an emotional barrier between them. Francis is cool, daring, a little unsteady but largely compassionate. Michael is the tag-along younger brother, far more unsure of himself. They are decent teenage boys with a mother who works overtime constantly and spends hours of her day travelling by bus to and from work. And so they are left alone much of the time, as are their peers in the Park. This is the first Canadian generation, their parents working impossibly hard in hopes that these children will have something more, something better.

The other part of the story – the book moves back and forth between these parts – takes place ten years later. Francis is gone and we aren’t told where or why until close to the end. Michael and his mother still live in the same apartment. Michael is now the hard-working adult, caring for his increasingly unresponsive and confused mother. The return of an old friend to the Park forces Michael to think back about the last summer he and his brother shared.

Chariandy does a terrific job of portraying the sibling relationship between Michael and Francis. The closeness engendered by sharing a home, sharing a bloodline, sharing day to day life. Combined with the distance that can grow between two very different young men with very different desires out of life and reactions to the circumstances that they find themselves in.

This is also a powerful story of the first generation and immigrant experience. While it’s not my own, I grew up in a multicultural Canadian city and many of my peers were first generation Canadians. Many of my neighbours and classmates were immigrants. My neighbourhood was different than the Park but we were surrounded by a multitude of languages and cultures. In my opinion, this is one of the best qualities about Canada and one to be embraced. Chariandy balances this against some of the real and heart-breaking issues that immigrants to Canada face, especially ones from developing nations. He doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. I’m glad that this book was a part of the Canada Reads longlist because I really think it’s one every Canadian should read. And if you’re not Canadian, I think you’ll still be swept up in Chariandy’s strong writing and memorable characters.

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

IMG_8679

Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller (Anansi, 2015)

I read Claire Fuller’s most recent novel, Swimming Lessons, (review here) last year and was intrigued enough by her writing to seek out her previous book at the local library. I’m glad I did because I actually liked Our Endless Numbered Days quite a bit more than I liked Swimming Lessons. A book part of that is the style of this story – I tend to not enjoy letter-style novels such as Swimming Lessons. At the same time, I simply found the story of Our Endless Numbered Days more fascinating.

Peggy is eight years old when her survivalist father tells her that the world has ended. He takes her deep into the forest, to an abandoned hut, where they begin their new life. She believes his stories of the destruction of the rest of the world, of the death of her mother. Being a child, she has little recourse but to trust him and rely on him, even as he demonstrates himself to be increasingly unstable.

The story is mostly about Peggy’s time with her father, James, but interspersed chapters show her as a seventeen-year-old, returned to the world and her mother. In these chapters we witness Peggy struggle to adjust to normal life and we are unsure how she returned and where James is.

Fuller does a great job of not romanticizing what is essentially a kidnapping story. This is no idyllic back-to-nature tale. James is ill-equipped to survive and the two are constantly on the brink of starvation. Without going overboard, Fuller shows us the dirt and discomfort such a life would entail. Knowing that Peggy does eventually escape kept me wanting to read more, wanting to find out how and when. The “twist” that comes at the end seemed obvious to me and a little heavy-handed but I can see what Fuller was going for and, overall, it doesn’t weaken the novel.