Author: David Chariandy (b. 1969)
First published: Brother, 2017, in Canada
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (New York). 192 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locales: Scarborough and Toronto, Ontario; Sainte Madeleine, Trinidad
David Chariandy’s award-winning second novel, Brother, highlights the large trials and small triumphs of growing up black in urban Canada. A family of Trinidadian heritage fights to survive in an ethnically diverse, economically challenged, and politically scapegoated enclave of Scarborough, a section of Toronto.
Michael Joseph, the narrator
Francis Joseph, his older brother
Ruth Joseph, their mother, born in rural Trinidad
Aisha, a young woman who used to live in the neighborhood
Jelly, Francis’s best friend, a talented disc jockey
Samuel, Aisha’s father, a security guard
Michael Joseph, the narrator of Brother, informs readers that his community of Scarborough, Ontario, is locally nicknamed “Scarlem” and “Scarbistan,” and was once known as “Scarberia” for its distance from downtown Toronto. The nickname “Scarlem” suggests a fitting comparison: Scarborough, like Harlem, is an inner-city community that residents in the surrounding metropolis—Toronto and New York, respectively—periodically view with varying degrees of acceptance, disdain, suspicion, fear, or alarm. Scarborough, like its American counterpart, contains a large concentration of people of color. Many Scarborough residents come from South and Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, China, and India, gravitating to the area where immigrants typically collect in Canada’s largest city.
Michael’s parents exchanged the poverty of a village in Trinidad for the poverty endemic to a run-down urban Canadian neighborhood in Scarborough called the Park. Michael and his older brother, Francis, have never known any life but that experienced while residing in their no-frills unit in a building called the Waldorf, an ironic name now that the structure is old and crumbling. The boys, born in Canada, only vaguely remember their father, who deserted the family when they were just toddlers, but who is rumored to live elsewhere in the city. The children are raised by their mother, Ruth, who once had ambitions of becoming a nurse. She toils long hours commuting to and from cleaning jobs at distant office buildings or shopping malls. From an early age, Michael and Francis are left alone with stern admonishments from Ruth to behave while she is gone (do not unlock the door; do not fiddle with the knobs on the stove). Led by curious, ingenious instigator Francis, however, the siblings manage to get into relatively harmless mischief: they escape outside, gorge themselves on sweets, and break things.Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA
The existence of the Joseph family is difficult, but tolerable in an environment where the hard-working, neighborly residents greet one another daily, trade recipes, listen to music together, and generally look out for one another. Scarborough also has its attractions; its denizens live adjacent to Lake Ontario. Better still, the Rouge Valley, a national urban park carved out by retreating glaciers, is contained almost entirely within Scarborough’s boundaries. The boys grow up playing frequently in the Rouge: splashing in creeks, building forts, or following the tracks of wild animals.
As Michael and Francis age, they develop quite different personalities. Michael is an introvert who often visits the library with a studious neighbor named Aisha. Francis, however, is outgoing and bold, popular with the girls, and respected by older, tougher kids for his brooding nature and explosive temper. Francis is afraid of nothing. His fearlessness is demonstrated in an incident at a bus stop when a gang led by a boy flashing a hunting knife threatens Michael. Without hesitation, Francis grabs the naked blade with...
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his bare hand and, unconcerned about cutting himself, wrests the knife away. © Joy von Tiedemann
By the time Francis reaches double-digits in age, he has become a surrogate father to Michael, often reminding his sibling to stand up for himself. Francis teaches Michael special skills he has learned on his own. For example, Francis shows Michael how to climb to the top of a utility power pole without being electrocuted by hazardous live wires. The purpose of Francis’s exercise is to help Michael accept the risk inherent in pursuing a goal: from the lofty perch he can gain a new perspective about the place where he lives and see the patterns of the streets.
When the brothers reach their teenage years, they become physically separated. Michael, still a nerdy type who wants to be more like Francis but does not have the courage to emulate his brother, begins a relationship with Aisha after she introduces him to sex. Francis, who once enjoyed education, has a confrontation with a teacher in a high-school class, mouths off, is expelled, and never returns to school. Ashamed to have failed his family and unable to face his mother’s disappointment, Francis leaves home—though he returns occasionally with groceries to help the struggling family. Francis begins hanging out with a group of other young men of questionable reputation at Desirea’s, a strip-mall barbershop run by a man named Dru. Francis and the others spend days and nights at the shop, listening to music as played by his disc-jockey friend Jelly, and, it is rumored, smoking marijuana. Michael visits his brother there, where he is shown to Francis’s tiny new living quarters, in the barbershop storage room. His cot is even smaller than the bunkbeds they had shared.
Though Francis does not have a driver’s license and has never taken driving lessons, he co-owns a beat-up Honda convertible, and takes his brother for a harrowing ride around town. The car is transportation for the brothers and Jelly, who wants to compete in a disc-jockey competition for a possible contract from a powerful event promoter. In one of Brother’s most memorable passages, Jelly is shown to be a genius at what he does. With Francis handing records back and forth, Jelly auditions for the promoter and a well-known professional disc jockey, the Conductor. Jelly starts with a simple Somalian song, adds bass and drum lines, then seamlessly integrates many different types of music—soul, calypso, rhumba, blues, country-western, punk—to create a unique soundtrack that causes the Conductor to rise and applaud. After the audition, Francis, worried that the promoter does not have Jelly’s contact information, attempts to re-enter the place where the contest was held, but is stopped by four large bouncers. In response to a black bouncer’s insults, the much smaller Francis breaks the man’s nose with a single punch. After Michael and scrawny Jelly are quickly eliminated from participating in the fight, Francis is viciously beaten and kicked to a bloody pulp. As the friends limp away, the promoter calls after them, warning that if they come back the police will be called to arrest them.
The Park neighborhood of Scarborough suddenly receives unwanted negative publicity following a shooting near the Joseph family’s home. A casual acquaintance of Francis’s is killed, several people are wounded, and a sleeping child is narrowly missed by stray bullets. Afterward, inflammatory editorials appear in newspapers condemning the suburb as a breeding ground for violence. The city government steps up police presence in the area, and the barbershop becomes a target. Squads of armed policemen in bulletproof vests make regular unannounced visits to hassle whoever they find. The young men are manhandled, told to turn out their pockets, made to produce identification, and otherwise harassed. Each visit by law enforcement is more threatening than the last and their arrival invariably turns the barbershop’s atmosphere from relaxed and friendly to tense and dangerous.
The structure of Brother is nonlinear, which adds both to its suspense and its poignancy. The story opens in the 1990s with the reunion of Michael and Aisha, now both adults in their mid-twenties, whose careers are heading in opposite directions. Michael has worked for five years at the Easy Buy, a discount supermarket, “unloading skids, bagging groceries, cleaning up spills in aisles.” By contrast, Aisha, who was granted a scholarship as a teen, is now a writer and freelance computer programmer who has worked and traveled around the world. While Aisha is in town, tending to her dying father, she stays at the Joseph’s humble abode, sleeping on the bottom bunk, Michael’s usual bed, while he sleeps on the living room couch. The top bunk has no mattress because it is no longer needed: Francis has been dead for ten years. By the end of the first chapter readers realize that Ruth—first seen watching television with the sound off—is not in her right mind. The plot, which unspools over the course of the novel, shows how the combination of Francis’s volatile character, his unpredictable behavior, his associations, and the increasingly antagonistic attitudes of the surrounding community all contributed to his untimely demise. Francis’s death, in turn, results in Ruth’s madness, which manifests in frightening ways: when not carefully watched, she wanders away, often barefoot.
The bulk of Chariandy’s semi-autobiographical novel (the author was born and raised in Scarborough) consists of vignettes told in flashbacks as crisp as high-contrast black-and-white snapshots that sharply etch character-defining moments for members of the Joseph family. The young boys are seen, for example, conducting a heartbreaking search for their missing father. They ring doorbells at random in a low-rise apartment building where Mr. Joseph may have been spotted until a man answers, telling them over the intercom to go away. In another section, young Michael and Francis are taken by their mother to Trinidad so they can meet their relatives and experience their Caribbean heritage first-hand, the better to appreciate the food and the culture of the island once they return to Canada.
Balanced against episodes from the past is a secondary storyline set in the present. Aisha plans to gather together as many of the old gang from a decade ago that can be found for a party to commemorate the life of Francis on the tenth anniversary of his death. The hope is that the event will bring Ruth back to reality.
Evocative, nuanced, and often lyrical, Brother contains powerful, startling imagery that underscores the novel’s central theme: good, bad, or indifferent, life is worth celebrating, even for those living on the fringes in hostile territory. Critics greeted the novel with acclaim, and it received Canada’s Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize.
- Donaldson, Emily. “David Chariandy’s ‘Brother.’” Review of Brother, by David Chariandy. Canadian Notes & Queries, Winter 2018, notesandqueries.ca/reviews/david-chariandys-brother-reviewed-by-emily-donaldson/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
- Eidse, David. Review of Brother, by David Chariandy. The Winnipeg Review, 15 Oct. 2017, winnipegreview.com/2017/10/brother-by-david-chariandy/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
- Grubisic, Brett Josef. “Brother a ‘Poetic Vision’ in the Heart of Scarborough.” Review of Brother, by David Chariandy. The Toronto Star, 29 Sept. 2017, www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/reviews/2017/09/29/brother-a-poetic-vision-in-the-heart-of-scarborough.html. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
- Nayeri, Dina. “‘Brother” by David Chariandy Review—A Family on the Edge of Disaster.” Review of Brother, by David Chariandy. The Guardian, 16 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/15/brother-by-david-chariandy-review. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
- Nurse, Donna Bailey. “Lives of a Brother: Love, Hope and Death in Scarberia.” Review of Brother, by David Chariandy. Literary Review of Canada, Oct. 2017, reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2017/10/lives-of-a-brother/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.