I’ve noticed a micro trend amongst books at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival. There are a lot of books about brothers and their relationships. There’s even a couple about brothers and sisters. Relationships between sisters only make a rare appearance. I’ll delve into this at a later date when I have a complete tally.
David Chariandy’s book, Brother, like Family Life by Akhil Sharma, is centred around a tragedy. This time, someone dies. Michael and Francis are the sons of Trinidadian immigrants, growing up in a rough part of town known as the Park. Their father is long gone and their mother works her ass off so that they have opportunities.
“All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by a freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies. “Examples” were raised.”
But in communities thick with poverty, where prejudice is rampant, police armed and impossibly dangerous, and racism is institutionalized, it can be hard to overcome powerful societal forces. Or even if you can, those forces can overtake you anyway.
As teenage boys are wont to do, they do what they want, regardless of the sacrifices of their mothers. Francis gets mixed up with a crew of boys, who are never shown to be all that dangerous or to care about anything other than music and each other. Yet prejudice takes a toll.
Chariandy doesn’t demonize the police, although in today’s climate it would be easy to do so. He shows there are good officers who care about their communities, just as there are officers who would just as soon put a bullet in the head of an unarmed, black teenager. I don’t know if he did this to make the book more palatable to the powers that be, or because he believes it.
Brother has a meditative quality. As a reader I felt inside and outside the story at the same time. It passed by me and there was nothing I could do about the inevitable conclusion, even while I knew such a conclusion wasn’t necessary if everyone paused for one moment to think. On the book jacket, poet Dionne Brand calls the novel “such tender work.” It couldn’t have been said better.