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BookBrowse Reviews Brother by David Chariandy

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Brother

by David Chariandy

Brother by David Chariandy X
Brother by David Chariandy
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 192 pages

    Paperback:
    Nov 2019, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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David Chariandy presents a gripping representation of how grief can stretch over a lifetime, suspending those suffering in amber as they fail to move on from the past.

Brother is the brief, moving account of how a single, tragic moment in time can alter the course of numerous lives, and how grief can eat a person from the inside out. Trinidadian Michael Joseph and his mother Ruth have been mourning a loss for a decade, suffering from what psychologists refer to as "complicated grief." Michael explains, "There are losses that mire a person in mourning, that prevent them from moving forward by making sense of the past. You become disoriented, assailed by loops of memory, by waking dreams and hallucinations." Michael is aware that his mother is suffering from this condition, but is seemingly blind to the fact that he is likewise afflicted.

The novel is narrated in two timelines from Michael's point-of-view. In the present timeline, he is an adult looking after his mentally unstable mother. The arrival of his former high school girlfriend Aisha, whom he has not seen in ten years, rockets Michael's psyche back in time to the violent event that tore apart the fabric of his family. The second timeline revolves around this event, as Michael recalls coming-of-age with his older brother Francis in the late 80s/early 90s in a housing project called "The Park" in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. The brothers do their best to stay safe and sane while contending with neighborhood violent crime and their over-protective mother's rules, finding solace in the local barbershop and a burgeoning hip-hop scene. Francis dreams of seeing his best friend recognized for his DJ skills, but all of their bright futures are shattered by the events of one tragic night.

There is a seething tension at the center of the novel concerning the discrimination and marginalization perpetrated against immigrants and people of color. Well aware of these attitudes, Michael's mother raises her children to subvert stereotypes, as do many of the other immigrant families in the Park. Michael recalls Aisha, a bright young woman, being heralded as "an example" and "the exception." This speaks to the concept of "respectability politics" - the expectation that a person of color must be twice as good, twice as smart, twice as upstanding, to get the same respect as their white counterparts.

Chariandy skillfully captures the stark poverty and lurking malevolence of Michael's neighborhood: "a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into our life," which compares the area to a fungus while also hinting at its large immigrant population. Within the darkness of this community lies a ray of hope, the barbershop, a place of comradeship and comfort for young men of color. Chariandy describes it evocatively: "Entering Desirea's, you walked into a solid fog of smell, a collision of body warmth, colognes and hair products, thick in the nose, waxy on the tongue. You were hit with a mash-up of sounds and rhythm halted and restarted. A bass so deep and heavy you could feel it in your jaw." The other young men in the barbershop, many of whom are also children of immigrants, understand Michael and his brother's situation precisely, and they form a communal bond in this sacred space.

For a book set in 1991 and 2001, Brother is remarkably timely. Chariandy explores the harm racist and xenophobic attitudes can have on an individual, and on a community as a whole, and how law enforcement, rather than acting to improve such a community, can become a violent and oppressive presence. It is a plaintive and gripping representation of the loss of life and dignity that results when certain people in society are viewed as expendable - an urgent plea for empathy.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2018, and has been updated for the November 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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