Brother is David Chariandy’s second novel and like his debut novel Soucouyant (2007) it is set in Scarborough, the multi-ethnic east Toronto suburb that Chariandy grew up in, described by the narrator of Brother as “a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life.”
Soucouyant was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist and the Governor General’s Award shortlist in 2007. Likewise, Brother was on this year’s Giller longlist before it was even published and is shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
In Brother Chariandy, who is now a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, looks back on the Scarbourough of his youth in the late 1980s and early nineties. The novel is interested in themes of masculinity in poor, visible minority communities where fathers or father figures aren’t always present and most encounters with authority are exercises in humiliation and emasculation.
But it is also a story of resilience. Quietly, Chariandy juxtaposes the violence and poverty of the community he describes (“The Park,” with its sagging lowrises and ethnic grocery stores) with characters who try their best to either cope with the limitations of their lives or strive to overcome them.
The two main characters are brothers – Michael, who narrates the novel, and Francis, who we learn early on was shot and killed while a teenager. The “present” of the novel is ten years after Francis’ death with Michael living a narrow life looking after his mother, Ruth, who has not stopped mourning Francis and is living with untreated dementia. The story of the brothers’ lives is told mostly in flashback.
Michael has a precarious job typical of the urban underclass, unloading pallets at a discount superstore. “I have worked at the Easy Buy for five years,” says Michael, “but I know that if I miss a shift, or if I arrive too late, I risk future employment.” He is protective of his mother but is clearly struggling to keep things together. He still sleeps in his childhood bunkbed.
Michael and Ruth’s life is jarred by the return of two people from the past – “the summer of the shootings” ten years ago.
One is Aisha, Michael’s first girlfriend, who escaped The Park on a university scholarship shortly after Francis’ death.
He hasn’t seen her since, but she is mourning her own father’s death and Michael impulsively invites her to stay with him and his mother for a visit.
In Aisha’s wake comes Jelly, a dj somewhere between struggling and failing, who had been a friend of Francis and who disappeared after his death. It isn’t until later that we learn the connection between Jelly and Francis’ shooting.
Ruth and her husband are immigrants from Trinidad, she Black, he Indian. He deserted the family when the boys were babies. Ruth worked two and three cleaning jobs at a time to support her sons but left them alone all too often.
Francis grew up to be street smart and stylish, Michael became clumsy and introverted. The scenes from the last summer of Francis’ life are dominated by two locations – a hair salon hangout where Jelly spins records and Francis lives in the back room, and the local library that is Michael and Aisha’s refuge.
Chariandy is very good at describing the physical settings of The Park and how its very atmosphere mirrors the characters’ lives.
“A month later, an enveloping heat arrived, a physical oppression from which none could escape.” he writes. “Nature carrying on like the sort of thug you only hear about. In the early morning it was a menacing red haze. By the afternoon it was a syrup misery in the air, suffocating your will, making even breathing difficult.”
There are themes of police brutality and overt racism that make Brother an inevitably political book. But its focus remains on the characters’ struggles to retain their dignity in the only world they know.
Brother is a heart-breaking book, carefully observed and compassionate. I hope we don’t have to wait another ten years to read Chariandy’s next novel.
Brother by David Chariandy, Random House Penguin, 192pp.