review by Wade Lynch
In the first sentence of the acknowledgments section of his book, Brother, David Chariandry writes, “This short book took me a long time to write”. Brother is a substantial read and its brevity is not an indication of its depth. Rather, this carefully crafted novel, detailing ten years in a family’s life, is spare specifically because its characters are so confined by the grief and prejudice and poverty surrounding them that they have lost their ability to move forward. Brother is a story in stasis. There is not a lot to tell, but what there is, is heartbreaking.
Brother is the story of an immigrant family living on the outskirts of 1990’s Toronto amid that city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Scarborough (or, as it is otherwise called in the book, Scar-bro or Scarberia or Scarlem or Scarbistan ) is an unlikely Eden sought by West Indian parents; a better place to raise their new-Canadian boys than amid the poverty of their homeland. Their dreams are scuttled when the decaying concrete project apartment home they inhabit becomes fatherless and the two young boys are left to be raised by their mother amid ever-diminishing circumstances.
Michael is the younger of the two brothers and the adult narrator of the story. He is a reluctant survivor, unable to heal as his scab of grief is repeatedly picked away by the people and circumstances that link him, inexorably, to two tragic incidents, ten years apart. He is caretaker to his increasingly failing mother and cannot risk losing the job he despises for fear of further jeopardizing their tenuous social and financial conditions. Francis is the ‘brother’ of the title, a thoughtful teenaged boy, too soon burdened with the mantel of adult responsibility. Aware and resentful of his role as father figure to his younger sibling, he struggles to equip Michael with the skills and sensibilities needed to survive a context that suspects (and too often hates) his gender and colour and social status. Francis is profoundly loyal and instinctively protective of those he loves. His efforts to ensure that Michael learn the unfathomable rules of acceptable male conduct, fostered in a community devoid of any positive examples, are hard to witness; hard to read. The lessons Francis offers his brother in male and macho and black are at odds with the intense, unspoken love he has for Jelly, his best friend and partner in hip-hop ambitions. It is sadly unsurprising that those two elements, same-sex love and the hip-hop music scene, conspire in the genesis of the novel’s great tragedy.
There are elements of Holden Caulfield in Brother; Duddy Kravitz too. We recognize the pain of young men who want to change their circumstances and who don’t possess the skills to do so. Chariandry, through the character of Michael, observes Francis’ keen gift of perception;
From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-11 and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours.
The brothers’ relationship with their mother is strained; an unquestionable love made difficult by her pride and necessary absence. She is a woman confined by poverty and guilt, determined to be both parents to her boys and, according to Chariandry, “… one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others…though it meant leaving her two boys alone at home.”
The other significant character in the novel is the city of Scarborough, mythologized beyond its other guise as a suburb one needs to get through in order to get to Toronto. In the same way that Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion forever changes a reader’s impression of the Bloor Street viaduct, Brother will chronicle how an act of racist violence can change “a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city” into the face of ugly humanity where the “stucco of a low-rise looked like the sole of an unwashed child; the rust on the balcony railings and fire exits of an apartment tower looked ugly and contagious, a bubbling rash.”
Brother succeeds on two levels. On one it is a disturbing record of the immigrant experience in urban Canada which, although primarily set in the 1990’s, is painfully reflected in today’s headlines. Bigotry, fear and racial profiling are everyday elements in Brother’s Scarborough, but they could just as easily define the Christchurch and Quebec and Charleston and Toronto of 2019. This novel will long live as an equal among its contemporaries like The Book of Negroes and Indian Horse, fictionalized versions of truths most Canadian don’t want to, but need to know.
On another level, Brother is a staggering example of literary beauty. It is not so much written as it is carved. There is no excess; no extra words. Chariandry crafts his sentences and chapters in precise, economical units that, when they don’t carry the narrative forward, comment on atmosphere. They provide context in exquisite and spare detail.
Brother does not provide us with a happy ending. It would be misleading, however, to say it doesn’t provide us with hope, though you really have to look for it. There is a lesson, too; a lesson about remembering and learning what Michael tells us on the first page, that “Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle-sting of now.”