Though set further north of the bluffs, David Chariandy’s follow-up to his debut Soucouyant is every bit as family-soaked, its losses and sorrows cast against a remarkable and enduring landscape.
In Brother, Michael introduces readers to the Rouge Valley, to his mother and to the memory of his brother Francis, as seen through his own eyes, but also reflected through other characters’ attachments to Francis.
“The Rouge Valley. It was a wound in the earth. A scar of green running through our neighbourhood, hundreds of feet deep in some places, a glacial valley that existed long before anything called Scarborough. It had been bridged near our home, turned into a park with a paved asphalt walkway running alongside the creek.”
This bridge and the path along the margin is both a literal and metaphoric construction. Characters are both connected and alienated, protected by boundaries and limited by them.
Scarborough itself is presented in all its complexity, the tensions within the community and tensions directed towards it drawing the narrative taut.
Desirea’s, the barbershop, is as significant a landscape as the Rouge Valley, as integral to identity and the concept of belonging.
“In Desirea’s, you postured but you also played. You showed up every one of your dictated roles and fates. Our parents had come from Trinidad and Jamaica and Barbados, from Sri Lanka and Poland and Somalia and Vietnam. They worked shit jobs, struggled with rent, were chronically tired, and often pushed just as chronically tired notions about identity and respectability. But in Desirea’s, different styles and kinships were possible, You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin.”
Readers know from the beginning that Michael is the surviving son. Well, surviving might be optimistic. Perhaps his friend Aisha, who has returned home to grapple with the loss of her father, says it better.
“He does what we all do these days, Michael. He gets by.”
Michael and his mother are not the only people struggling to reconcile Francis’ death with their continued existence. The boys’ mother is, however, perhaps most overtly damaged.
“Mother’s face seemed ready to break. It’s hard to describe. Like watching a glass ball being dropped in a slow-motion movie. That fraction of a second just after the glass hits the ground and it’s still a ball, but the cracks are everywhere, and you know it’s not going to be a ball much longer.”
Her life was not simple before. Michael’s memories of growing up, his memories of the support that his brother once offered their mother, are complicated. He is only beginning to understand how she might have felt about having lost her connection to her Trinidad. A loss which is directly connected to every loss she has experienced since.
“She did not hint at the debt or struggle or the aches she often felt. As we headed to the airport, she just nodded and looked out the window at the coconut trees towering black against the evening sky, and the old untended fields of cane stretching out like a sea.”
Landscape as backdrop to a landscape as backdrop to a story cast against a series of buildings which are not homes. Michael’s workplace, the library, community centres: readers have this sense that this single family’s story stretches beyond a handful of characters, to even more catastrophic losses and injustices.
“Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”
Chariandy’s language is spare. Readers are not afforded the opportunity to get lost in snares of commentary. An occasional moment of lyricism punctuates the harsh realities of the family’s experiences.
The narrative moves smoothly between two time periods: that in which Michael has a living brother and that in which Michael must continue living without a brother. Clear and concise, there is room here for emotions to resonate.
The story is tightly controlled so that sentimentality never obscures the deliberate and carefully choreographed dance. Between the possibilities of “then” and the impossibilities of “now”.
Michael’s story is everybody’s story, nobody’s story, and a city’s story. All at once.
Ultimately, this is a story about the importance of telling one’s own story.
So, now, this story needs readers. Will you be one of them?