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Book review: Brother by David Chariandy – a family on the edge of disaster

This is an exquisite Canadian novel about growing up in a poor immigrant neighbourhood of danger and futile dreams.

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“You can always do things to let the world know you’re not nobody. You never know when your break is coming,” says older brother Francis, advising Michael to relax, to be less clueless, less of a pussy. But Francis learns early on that his break isn’t coming, that it is dangerous to hope. Narrated by the adult Michael, Canadian author David Chariandy’s tightly crafted, gracefully elegiac second novel alternates between present-day and early 1980s Scarborough, a hopeless Toronto neighbourhood – nicknamed Scarlem and Scarbistan and Scar-bro – of poor immigrants and their disenfranchised children. The book is a study of the cultural divide between the displaced and their offspring. The parents have “useless foreign degrees” framed on the walls of their corner shops, advertising “back home tastes” on hand-painted signs. Their feral children, “oiled creatures of mongoose cunning”, hang out in barbershops, mix music and watch The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard.

In the present day, Francis is gone and Michael is left to care for their mother alone. When Aisha, Michael’s studious childhood girlfriend and now a writer, returns to the neighbourhood, she forces mother and son to reckon with their “complicated grief” and memories of Francis.

Chariandy handles some of the most emotional issues of our time with care and wisdom

Michael and Francis’s mother is from Trinidad. During their childhood, she travels hours each day for cleaning shifts, her guilt as she locks her young boys in for the night manifesting in threats “mined from the deepest hells of history”. She warns them not to waste food, not to open the door, not to watch TV late at night. She knows they won’t listen, but she has to go, and her despairing rages become the heartbeat of the story. Her body is always on the brink of giving out, her breath stinking from a rotten tooth, and in her daily toil she exemplifies the fine line between survival and disaster. There is a moment, Michael understands, when “the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home”. Through her pain and sweat and undying belief in “arrival and opportunity”, she forces her sons to try to live by the rules. “You all is harden,” she accuses in a melodic Trinidadian accent, warning them that despite what the world expects, no son of hers can ever become a “crimi-nal”.

In the novel’s most powerful childhood scene, just after someone is killed in a convenience store, the boys can’t sleep because they are afraid of “the black murderers”. Their mother tells them they are safe, begs them to believe it, but Francis refuses. “I don’t believe you,” he says, frantic, to which she replies: “But I need you to believe me.”

And it is with this foundational belief in her safety that her universe diverges from that of her sons. Here is their most fundamental culture clash: she is a woman with a country where she is wanted, far away though it may be, and while her striving may lead nowhere, it probably won’t get her murdered by police.

As they grow older, Michael begins to see what Francis sees. “One morning I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.” Michael is prone to being socially awkward with the neighbourhood boys (“Yeah, homeboy is indubitably dope!”). Francis keeps him at arm’s length from the dangers and futile dreams that take shape in Desirea’s barbershop, a place where among the do-rags and sharp fades children of immigrants “found new language … kept the meanings close as skin”.

Francis and Mother share a quiet devotion and endless conflict that is unique to first-born children and single mothers. Her sadness is the subject of Chariandy’s most beautiful prose, from the casual way she explains her presence to overattentive sales people (“just window shopping”) to passages such as this:

Mother’s face seemed ready to break … 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.

Chariandy’s writing is accomplished and confident: every word hits its mark. Mother stops to “neat up” her dress. A gunshot victim leaks “a wet pink balloon” from his head. Thick Brylcreemed hair looks like “the black snap-on do of Lego-Man”. Michael searches for a clue in the “expressive space” between Francis’s mouth and nose. Chariandy handles some of the most emotional issues of our time – the casual indignities of being a poor child of immigrants, the impervious power-posturing of police in the black community, murders dismissed as lawful – with care and wisdom. The result is seething and persuasive.

Near the end of the novel, Mother takes her teenage boys for a walk. They watch tiny moths circle a plant near the creek. Michael describes them as torn pieces of an old book, “a scattered and wasted alphabet. Without any meaning at all.” But Mother retains her hope, useless as it may be. “Look closer,” she says. “Cup your hand and feel the proof of them against you. They’re not trash. They’re living things. And they’re flying.”

Brother is an exquisite novel, crafted by a writer as talented and precise as Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu. It has a beating heart and a sharp tongue. It is elegant, vital, indubitably dope – the most moving book I’ve read in a year.


  • Dina Nayeri’s non-fiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, will be published by Canongate next yearBrother by David Chariandy (Bloomsbury, £12.99). To order a copy for £9.59, saving over 25%, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
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