#187 Brother, where art thou?
First published October 23, 2017
Toronto: Penguin Random House (McClelland & Stewart), 2017
by David Chariandy
$25 hc ISBN 978-0-7710-2290-6
reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
The only author nominated for both the Giller and Rogers Writers Trust Fiction awards in 2017 is David Chariandy, whose second novel, Brother, concerns two siblings growing up in Scarborough in the 1980s. — Ed.
David Chariandy’s second novel, like his first, is embedded in his Caribbean roots, but the difficult and marginal existence of his characters is fictional.
The two main characters, Michael and his brother, were born in Canada, the offspring of a doomed marriage, after their father and mother had left Trinidad, presumably in search of a better life.
The elder brother, Francis, was only three and Michael, the narrator, a year younger, when their father abandoned them, leaving his exhausted and unskilled wife to fend for herself and her sons.
The father still lives in the same city, Toronto, but the boys never see him again. Years later, when the brothers track him down, he refuses to acknowledge or see them.
The mother is too worn out for rage; she can’t afford it. Travelling to her cleaning jobs and trying to keep her two boys from being toughs is all she can manage. Michael, the peacekeeper, is a gentle and generous soul who adores his sibling and who recognizes that the rage fomenting in Francis is dangerous.
They live in Scarborough, in eastern Toronto, growing up the ‘80s with labeling by neighbours and police as ‘ragamuffins,’ ‘hooligans’ and ‘gangsters’ as they raid dumpsters and slink into forbidden places to spy and explore, snowballing cars in winter and climbing trees in summer.
With no money for ice cream or comics, they’re hounded out of shops and carefully watched elsewhere. One of their favourite hangouts is also their mother’s, the Rouge Valley, a wild patch of nature and debris where they can play without judgment or fear, as children do anywhere.
Francis has nightmares. A bright boy, he knew how to read at seven and much to his younger brother’s awe, could also read faces and keep them both safe in dangerous places. He can’t, however, keep himself safe from the demon rage growing within him.
“And as Francis began to approach adulthood, he grew dissatisfied with the world and with his destined place in it,” Chariandy writes.
By 18, Francis has been expelled from school and begins to hang out with older boys who Michael doesn’t know, frequenting a fringe barbershop filled with boys supposedly known to police. This barbershop hangout and these friends, labeled as shady and ‘no good,’ are the most positive things in his life.
When violence explodes outside their apartment, and both boys are witness to it, the two youths are roughly picked up and taken to the police station for questioning. Even though they’re innocent and allowed to go home, thereafter they’re viewed suspiciously as criminal. Tired of being harassed by the police, tired of being labeled as a gangster and a thug, Francis is headed for a fall.
We see his anger when he and Michael were picked up by the police. It will erupt when he and his close friend, Jelly, are routinely dismissed when auditioning for a music contest they have worked so hard to win.
Ten years ago, when David Chariandy’s debut novel, Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp 2007), was nominated for ten literary prizes, including being shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary award and long listed for the Giller prize, he said he already knew the plot and the title of his second book. So the incubation for Brother has been slow and very, very carefully wrought.
The story vacillates between the ‘80s and the ‘90s, when Michael is a young man, still living at home, earning, caring for his stricken mother who has yet to get over some unrevealed horror—likely something to do with Francis.
The attractive Aisha arrives, invited by Michael to stay with him and his mother while she attends the funeral of her father. She and Michael once were lovers and friends. As she re-acquaints herself with the neighbourhood that she fled years ago, she begins to get on his nerves with her insistence that there are better ways to look after his mother.
With flashbacks, we begin to learn about what has happened with Francis. He has acted aggressively, challenging the status quo even when he knew he’d pay the price in a beating, but his most unwise act was protecting his friend, instinctively, just as he has always done with his brother.
For Francis and his marginalized friends in the Toronto of the 1990s, the best redemption came from their music. This was a time when rap went mainstream, when DJs were replaced by pre-recorded tracks, when innovators and sound hounds found, assembled, and created their own mixes.
It was a brave new world and Francis and his friend Jelly were in the middle of it, working with cross-faders and equalizers to connect one style with another, across countries and across time. Their passion, their dedication and their skill, entitled them to succeed.
“I’ve set my novel in the early nineties,” Chariandy, “when a group of young black men and their allies found shelter for themselves in old music and the new technologies of sound,” he writes. He hopes, “… that my novel will help reveal how toughened young men, too often viewed as threats, have nevertheless braved great acts of tenderness and love.”
review by Cherie Thiessen / Ormsby Review 2017
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