David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.
It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.
While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.
I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.
While paying for some Christmas ornaments, I asked the cashier if she was ready for the holidays. No, she told me, she was having a hard time this year because her dad died in the summer and she couldn’t bring herself to get excited or plan a big meal or take part in the usual family traditions. That’s shit, I replied, total shit. As if I know anything about real grief. She teared up. Yes, she said, it is shit. Thanks for saying that. I paid and left.
Most of what I know about grief I know from reading. And Zinzi Clemmon’s What We Lose is a tremendous education in the banality and exceptionality of loss – the way grief persists and permeats and shows up in unexpected places and in excrutiating ways. The novel achieves this by shadowing the story with the death of our protagonist’s mother. The death is at once the absolute focal point of the story, and the unseen stagehand. While there are sections that pull apart the precise experience of grief, the bulk of the text is working through other moments: a pregnancy, a romance, a friendship. But each of these other moments are coloured with grief, usually unnamed and unclaimed, but nevertheless powerfully present.
It is also a story about loneliness and home. It is written with precise language that is beautiful in its simplicity and specificity.
It is a book that made me remember to call my parents and ask how they’re doing because it reminded me they won’t always be alive, and neither will I, and that glimpsing that gaping sadness through fiction is as close to fully feeling as I want to get – ever – though I know of inevitability and loss and how naive I am to think I can put this feeling away as easily as closing a book. (And made even more poignant and heart-pulling to know that it was my mum who suggested I read it. Because what will I do when she can’t recommend books to me anymore. And so I stop thinking about that and call her to find out what she’s reading).
So, no, it’s not a cheerful holiday read. But perhaps a necessary one for inviting appreciation of those we have and had. And not in a saccharin, forget-their-faults kind of way, but in an acknowledgement of finitude and a welcoming of melancholy.
We read Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers for book club. Yet another reminder of why book club is great (if the bowls of candy & chocolate weren’t sufficiently compelling) is the invitation to read things I would never otherwise read. Even things I don’t like. Maybe especially things I don’t like? Continue reading