What does it mean to grieve?
That is the central question which David Chariandy’s 2018 novel, Brother, addresses. Living in post-pandemic 2021 can be so chaotic and fast-paced that the slow, careful nuances of everyday life are simply forgotten. Regardless, there is a certain something that sings between the lines of this careful, masterfully plotted book; something, that, during the free-spinning, reckless course of 2020-2021, has brought me back to the tale of Michael and Francis once more.
“… [H]e, my brother, understood the old music, that heritage of love, because he felt it himself. He loved his family, and also his friends. He loved a young man named Jelly.”
Brother is an elegy from one brother to another, a political commentary, and an exploration of interfamilial sorrow all at once. A masterful, multilayered tale of mystery, Chariandy moves swiftly between temporal locations to keep the reader in the dark until the moment of truth: Francis’ death, through an act of minority violence at the hands of police. The realisation is stark and painful, in high contrast to the sleepy, slow-moving progress of the book’s narrative, and only makes Francis’ death more jarring. It leaves the reader with the feeling that something is wrong — that this should not have happened.
And that is where Brother truly begins. With the idea that Francis’ death should have been avoided.
Michael, his little brother, is both a frustrating and pitiful narrator in one. While Michael’s immediate reactions to Francis’ death are understandable, the way that he twists and turns within the first-person perspective of the book capturing his grieving process is disappointing. Michael is constantly spoiling the reader at moments when one thinks they are going to get answers, he is going to communicate with his forlorn mother, and he will move on from personal loss. In a sense, Michael’s inability to progress is very human, and strikes the reader with a sense of the inequality of being alive, in that some grief will never be recovered from, and some sorrows become too deep to be manageable.
Michael’s memories of their shared childhood further entrench the grief of losing Francis. Even before Francis’ death has been confirmed, when the only thing the reader is aware of is the fact that something is wrong. Incoming darkness looms over the reader even as they read of everyday things: Michael going to the store, Michael working his minimum-wage job, Michael cleaning up after his depressed, catatonic mother as she lies, immobile. Before the reader is made aware of the hole that has opened up with Francis’ disappearance, Francis is constructed first as a person of his own making. In tune with the progress made by social activists today, Brother ensures that Francis is a person first and a statistic second.
Michael remembers exploring the streets of their hometown, Scarborough, in Toronto, running along the creek and into the parklands of the forests lining the city. He recounts, in vivid, warm detail — the exact opposite of the muted, half-there descriptions used to describe his life in the present — how the trees looked, each action taken by him and Francis in their adventures, even the people that they used to know and greet together. Those people remain in contact with Michael today, from Aisha, the ambitious girl-next-door, to Jelly, Francis’ mischievous best friend and later lover, but none described in as much detail and with as many intricacies to their interactions as in the past. The life of this book remains in the past, calling back to an older Golden Age that no longer exists — but unlike the classical Golden Ages found in tragic theatre, Michael and Francis’ childhoods are cut off by racial injustice, not Gods or fate.
Therein lies the injustice that Chariandy explores with his powerful novel. At its core Brother is the tale of a family destroyed by a reasoning that is beyond their control, yet at the same time one that has been birthed purely from societal influence. Francis’ death should be preventable, and yet it is not; minority lives should be considered on equal footing, and yet they are not. Michael’s recollection of his past with Francis makes a powerful statement about the impact of his loss, without Chariandy mentioning political theory or social justice a single time. Though such mentions would certainly not diminish the value of his work in any way, Chariandy chooses instead to use the art of storytelling to make a clear statement on the importance of equality. Michael’s tale is both a reckoning, witness to the ways power can break apart families and destroy individuals, and an honouring of the beauty in art to repair and resolve lingering grief.
Ultimately, what makes Brother such an impactful, beautiful novel is the idea of found family. Though Francis’ loss has done irreparable damage to his idea of family, Michael ends the novel together with Aisha, Jelly, and his mother, and the exact details of their intrapersonal relationships are never explained. Regardless, it is clear they care for one another; his mother addresses Jelly with the same familiarity that she does Michael, and Aisha, after the unexpected death of her father, moves back to Scarborough and prepares to settle in with her family of choice. She accepts Jelly readily through his association with Michael, despite having not met previous, and together the four of them make lunch together, listen to old volumes of music, and watch the scenery. The novel ends not on a final resolution where Michael moves past his grief completely, nor with a classic confession of love between him and Aisha, but simply a glimpse into one of life’s many individual scenes. The impression that Brother leaves the reader with is not that the novel is over, nor concluded, but just that the reader’s perception into Michael’s life has come to an end, now.
Or, perhaps, as Mother described it best:
“It is a new day.” (Chariandy 176)
Chariandy, David. Brother. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2018.