Brother is an emotional read, not least because, from the outset, the reader has a sense of inevitability that promising lives will be unfulfilled or end tragically. Danger seems always close at hand in the area where the family live. ‘Always, there were stories on TV and in the papers of gangs, killings in bad neighbourhoods, predators roaming close.’ The relationship between the two brothers is beautifully rendered, with Francis acting as protector and guide to his younger brother. There is also a strong sense of the bonds of loyalty to your family, your friends – your ‘group’, as it were. Ultimately the latter will lead to tragedy.
The book evokes a believable picture of the immigrant experience in Canada (and I suspect many other places). It’s a world of poor housing and low level, insecure jobs where multiple jobs may be needed to make ends meet. However, there is comfort to be found in cultural reminders (food, music, etc.) and in community support in times of crisis. ‘To this very day, trays of food will sometimes appear at our front door. A pilau with okra, a stew chicken unmistakably Caribbean.’
Like many others, Michael’s and Francis’s mother dreams of a better future for her children, fighting prejudice, social inequality and low expectations. ‘All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might just have a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past….Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by a freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies. “Examples” were raised.’
Brother – sadly – tells a story that is probably being played out in many of our communities right now. It’s a relatively short book but one that packs an emotional punch.