Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.

This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.

Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”

Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.

David Chariandy

I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.

There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.

We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away.
Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.

An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

35 thoughts on “Brother by David Chariandy

    • I liked the bit about Trinidad even though it was only a small part of the overall thing. But it reminded us of how it only takes one generation for people to take on a new nationality.

  1. You are never again to complain about my adding to your TBR, FictionFan! That’s all! Not after dangling temptations like this in front of me! 😉 Seriously, this does sound like an excellent novel, and I like the way the immigrant dream is explored from both sides, as you might say: the people who left their home countries, and those who stayed behind. Those sound like interesting characters, too, and I like the settings. *Slowly and sneakily adds title to ever-growing list.*

    • Ha! I refuse to take responsibility for this one, since it was other bloggers who forced it on me! It’s like the Black Spot in Treasure Island… 😉 Yes, I thought including the Trinidad element really highlighted how it only takes a generation or two for people to take on a new nationality. It’s very well written and quite short – it won’t take up much space on your TBR… 😉

      • You would make a pirate reference. 😂 This book is different than your usual fare, and I see bloggers recommended it to you. What caught your attention in the reviews that led you to choosing to read the novel?

        • Interesting, because I think this is very much my usual fare, or was until recently. I’m so fed up with the liberal hand-wringing in the US and Brexit-angst in Brit-Lit that I seem to abandon more new releases than I read at the moment, which is probably why it seems I don’t read much contemporary fiction. So mainly what appealed about this one is that it’s Canadian! 😉

    • It seems to have been quite successful in Canada, and I was glad it was available here for once – so often I read about great-sounding Canadian books and then they never appear in the UK for some reason.

  2. How nice to hear the qualities of this book. I agree with you, when a book has no unnecessary padding, it’s a 100 times better. I appreciate the restraint from over sentimental writing, in a word, all that you praise in the book make it apealing.

    • Yes, I don’t understand the modern desire to overstuff a book – a book should be the length it needs to be to tell the story, no more, no less! That might be anything from 50 pages to 1500. This one was the perfect length – long enough to develop the characters and tell the story. If you do get a chance to read it some time, I hope you enjoy it!

  3. This sounds like another good read, FF. Thank you for your excellent review! I’m not jumping for joy over adding to my TBR, but putting one more on there can’t hurt too much, can it?!

    • It’s a short one, so it won’t take up much space! 😉 It is good, though – very well written and makes its point without Making A Point, if you know what I mean…

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, they did – it was their fault that it ended up on my TBR. But since it was very good, I forgive them. 😉 I think you’ll enjoy it when you get to it…

  4. It must be the zeitgeist – I’ve just recently finished a book which centred round the relationship between white Canadians and the First Peoples. I get the impression that Canada is examining its colonial past: this book sounds like a real contribution to that. I’ll look out for it.

    • There seems to be a real upsurge in Canadian literature of all kinds at the moment and a lot of it sounds great. I just wish more of it was available over here – I keep reading reviews, scuttling off to add them to my wishlist and finding they’re nowhere to be found…

  5. This sounds wonderful and I do think we (you) should start a campaign for books to be just the length they need to be! Seriously, I enjoy the intelligent and to my way of thinking the more nuanced look at the immigration dream, from both sides.

  6. Phew! I’m so glad my recommendation worked out, it’s such a great read isn’t it? I loved the part where they went back to Trinidad, I wish it had been longer so I’m glad you mentioned it.

    • You’re safe!! This time, at least… 😉 Yes, I loved the Trinidad bit too, especially the way the mother didn’t tell her sister the truth about her life in Canada – beautifully understated and yet said so much…

        • I was thinking about my aunts, who emigrated to Canada and America way back when I was a kiddie, and realising we always thought they were living a wonderful and exotic life over there. But when I got to know them properly when I was an adult, I discovered they spent the first few years suffering terribly from loneliness and homesickness… but never said so in their letters. Their children are as Canadian as maple syrup… 😀

  7. I’m so glad you liked it! Hooray!
    I especially like this point you make… “Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.” So true!

    • An excellent recommendation – your reputation is safe! 😉 Yes, I sometimes get fed up with books about the immigrant experience because they make it sound so awful it always leaves me wondering why they stay. I much preferred this more nuanced and, I believe, more realistic look at the problems but also the possibilities… 😀

  8. This has been on my list for a while and now I want to read it more than ever! I’m excited to see you reviewing a Canadian book. It’s interesting to hear your perspective because I think of Canada (especially Toronto and Vancouver) as full of immigrant neighbourhoods. My dad grew up in Scarborough so I know it fairly well and I think it’s become much more multicultural in the last 20 or so years.

    • I’d love to read and review far more Canadian literature – I’m often tempted by reviews, but loads of it either isn’t available over here or is ridiculously overpriced. When I visited my relatives in Ontario a few years back, I remember being surprised by the large Asian community in Toronto. My parochialism – I’m stuck back in the days of Empire and still think of Canada as being full of émigré Scots! This is an excellent book – I think you’ll enjoy it when you get to it… 😀

      • Well, you’re not entirely wrong! As a descendant of some of those émigré Scots, there are a lot of us. But most recent immigration has been from Asia, at least in Toronto and Vancouver.

        • I remember being equally surprised to discover that there had been a lot of immigration from China and surrounding countries into Australia. My view of the world is seriously outdated! 😉

    • I think you’d like this one! I found it a much more nuanced and balanced picture of the immigrant experience than a lot of the novels of the last few years…

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