David Adams Richards has set many works in the Miramichi, beginning with his classic trilogy (Nights Below Station Street, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down), so that the landscape of New Brunswick has become a character in its own right in his fiction.

Doubleday - Random House of Canada, 2014

Doubleday – Random House of Canada, 2014

The cast of Crimes Against My Brother is wide indeed, and for readers unfamiliar with his earlier works, it is difficult to determine which characters are fixtures for devoted readers of his fiction and which are introduced here for the first time.

(This simultaneously made me want to read all of his novels, beginning at the beginning, and made me think that the community is almost too well-developed for me to inhabit it, even temporarily. I did not immediately settle into this story: it took time for me to warm enough to take off my coat and stay awhile.)

The jacket identifies Sydney Henderson as the protagonist of Mercy Among the Children and states that Annette Brideau is new to Richards’ fiction; one might have guessed otherwise, for Sydney’s role is limited (though influential) and Annette’s is as significant as the three boys who are at the heart of the story.

The story of these blood-brothers, however, is actually more about the lack of brotherhood between them. (And as the story spins out, a lack of connection in a broader sense as well.)

“So the idea of being blood brothers had unravelled, it seemed, without Ian or Harold or Evan doing anything to unravel it. Not an ill intent had been formed to make ill intent blossom. Not a hard feeling existed before hard feelings swept them all—and none of them believed in anything but themselves.”

Ill intent or hard feelings, a lack of brotherhood or a lack of belief: the storyteller’s voice does not make clear pronouncements.

This is not a world of black and white, but one of endless shades of grey, increasingly so as the story develops and the lifeblood begins to fade, not only for many individuals but for the land itself.

“Like Ian and Evan, he believed Lonnie Sullivan was the cause of his trouble. But if truth be known, Lonnie had really done nothing to them; for each of them in their own way had had many opportunities to escape, to say no. And yet, now each of them was plagued by this man—and each of them, while disbelieving in the Divine, had in fact attributed much divinity to this man who they all secretly feared.”

It is not even simple to lay blame on the corporations who might be said to embody evil, foreign-owned businesses which have moved into the region to strip it of its resources, for they are staffed by Miramichi men and other woodsmen.

“Mr. Ticks was from Maine. He was a woodsman, like many here. And he was a good woodsman—and he walked the cut in his heavy boots, and with a knapsack to have lunch—and soon he realized what Helinkiscor was planning for the wood—and within eleven months he was disturbed by what was happening.”

The personal devastation is echoed in the environmental devastation and a sense of hopelessness pervades the narrative.

“’You are in despair,’ Annette said. ‘Yes, I have heard of men falling into that—despair.’”

At times the story appears to be relentlessly grim, but whereas the brotherhood of one group of boys disintegrates, another flourishes.

“Pint was so skinny his socks would fall off his feet, so Liam made small pins to hang from his shorts, and attached thread from these pins to his socks. Pint and Frazer were five, Gordon was six, and Dan and Brad were eight. These were his friends from those summers long, long ago. Brad and Dan were the ones who helped him search the dump for old computers, and Brad was the boy who helped him with his bicycle.”

It is clear from the opening pages that Crimes against My Brother intends to explore deeply resonant psychological and philosophical questions, and this continues throughout. One character declares: “I need only to forgive and in turn be forgiven. And if that was the case, none of us would ever need a psychiatrist—would we?”

It is appropriate for such a challenging work to be presented in a questioning perspective, in the voice of a writer who can openly question the way in which the story is presented and received.

“And something else bothered him. Is this part of the main or secondary story? I have not decided. Perhaps it is part of both—but it fits with a logic that is beyond us all.”

But this voice of indecision is not immediately engaging. Like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao and Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, David Adams Richards’ new novel requires that readers adjust their pace to the rhythm and style of the storyteller.

Sentence structure, vocabulary, the density of the prose: each element reflects characterization and setting and demands a certain receptivity on the part of readers, for this dense prose cannot be rushed.

And, yet, there is one aspect of the story which seems more akin to a page-turner than a moral conundrum.

 “’It is a burning question,’ Markus Paul said to his mentor and friend, John Delano, in the snowy cold winter of 1995. ‘And the burning question is this: how does a man slip and hit his head on a dry floor when his body is found two body lengths away from the narrow bench he supposedly hit? What I am saying is, he couldn’t have fallen like that. If anything, the body should be facing the other way—if he hit the bench like the report says.’”

This character obviously appears in one of Richards’ earlier novels, and when he appears in the narrative, it’s tempting to pull Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul from the shelf to see if it contains any clues about this investigation, which has considerable import for the lives of the characters in Crimes against My Brother.

Ultimately, however, readers will not discover a tidy resolution, either within or between novels, for these novel’s characters. It is unlikely that readers will agree on even the basic tenets of the story, for there is an argument for its being saturated with despair and sorrow and an argument for it being redolent with resilience and redemption.

Although unlikely to attract new readers to David Adams Richards’ fiction, Crimes Against My Brother is a rich and challenging work and the burning questions raised are worthy indeed, if unanswerable.

IFOASmallBadgeDavid Adams Richards will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.