It is no coincidence that Brother, the title of David Chariandy’s new novel, is similar to that of the memoir by Jamaica Kincaid. My Brother is Kincaid’s account of her younger sibling’s battle with AIDS. In the book she writes that she is surprised to learn that despite her brother’s sexual bravado in the company of women, he privately pursued intimate friendships with men. Kincaid’s memoir unfolds in an Antigua of economic despair where opportunities for young people are scarce. It’s a story about loss, the waste of potential, and how those we love best can remain a mystery.
So, too, it is with Chariandy’s new novel, in which an air of mystery surrounds the narrator’s older brother, Francis, especially the nature of his relationship with his best friend. When the story opens, Francis has been dead 10 years. The narrator, Michael, is Francis’s 20-something brother. He cares for their mother in the same gray, dilapidated Scarborough, Ontario, complex in which they were raised. The boys’ parents are Trinidadian: their mother, Ruth is black; their absent father, South Asian. The Toronto suburb is home to immigrants of colour, struggling to raise families on minimum wage jobs. Michael and Ruth keep to themselves, still traumatized by Francis’s violent death. But the reappearance of an old girlfriend forces Michael to contemplate the racism and police brutality that derailed his big brother’s life.
In her memoir Kincaid painstakingly analyzes her relationship with her controlling mother. And in Chariandy’s book, Ruth’s ferocious determination that her boys succeed contributes to Francis’s growing alienation from his family. Ruth serves as umbilical cord to the Caribbean and African past. Michael studies her for clues to who he is and where he is from.
Brother describes a cohort of Caribbean immigrants who settled in Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s. They believed they would be able to provide their children with enormous opportunities. It did not occur to them that they were moving from a rock to a hard place; that they were part of a centuries-old voyage that began with Africans forced across the Atlantic into slavery, and Indians who crossed the Kala Pani—the metaphorical dark waters beyond the subcontinent—into lives of indentured servitude; peoples travelling not only from one setting to another but through a cruel history. The costs were high then and they remain high now. How can Caribbean immigrants become rooted in this time and place? Chariandy wonders. How can they root their stories?
This is Chariandy’s second novel. His first, Soucouyant, published a decade ago, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award. It contained many similar ideas—the missing older brother, the absent father, the caretaking younger son, the mentally ill black mother—which Chariandy works and reworks like a Rubik’s Cube. He is a meticulous writer, his skill made manifest in the simple power of his prose, the way his words simultaneously convey plot, inspire reflection and move us beyond empathy to physiological experience. In one regard, Brother is a quick, easy read. In another, it wrenches the soul.
The plot sweeps between a present in which Michael is caring for Ruth, supporting them both on meagre earnings from shift work at the Easy Buy grocer’s, and a past in which Francis and Michael gradually come of age. The father abandons the family when Michael is two and Francis is three. Mother and sons form a tight unit. When they are still small Ruth frequently leads them down the path behind their complex into the lush Rouge Valley. It reminds her of Trinidad. Later the boys head down on their own to build forts, play in the leaves, race twigs in the creek. The valley confirms the presence of beauty in their world, even if it is largely out of sight.
Michael worships Francis, whom the girls already adore and the bullies already fear. And Francis lovingly looks out for his nerdy sibling, whom he teases in hilarious big brother fashion. He is protective of his mother as well, encouraging her to rest when she comes home from her far-flung cleaning jobs. Chariandy makes us feel Ruth’s exhaustion, the bone-weariness of the working poor:
[She] had not only tough hours, but also long journeys, complicated rides along bus routes to faraway office buildings and malls and homes, long waits at odd hours at stops and stations, sometimes in the rain or the thick heat of the afternoon, sometimes in the cold and dark of winter. He understood that there is a specific moment during the trip back home from work when a mother’s body threatens to give out. A specific site in the bus loop at Kennedy Station when exhaustion closes in and the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home.
The action occurs in pretty much the same area where Chariandy was raised by his Trinidadian parents in the 1970s and ’80s. It was around that time that the media went from depicting Scarborough as a benign Toronto suburb to a menacing urban jungle, a perception that grew in lockstep with its darkening complexion. “Always,” recalls Michael, “there were stories on TV and in the papers of gangs, killings in bad neighbourhoods, predators roaming close.” One night when the boys cannot sleep, Ruth asks them what is wrong. Francis answers, “The murderers. In the news. The black men…” Excruciating is the word to describe this scene, in which Chariandy illuminates a grotesque truth: Francis and Michael will soon learn they are the black men society has taught them to fear.
Chariandy forces upon us many such agonizing moments, as when Francis tells his high school teacher to fuck off, and the teacher threatens to call police—clearly viewing Francis as a dangerous figure rather than a mouthy student. In this novel as well as his previous one, Chariandy severely indicts Ontario’s secondary school system, not only for failing to provide black children with the tools to succeed, but for radically reducing black children’s chances. Despite Francis’s intelligence, his curiosity, and his love of books, teachers stream him into dead-end courses. “His new-found disinterest in school perfectly countered its apparent disinterest in him.”
Chariandy highlights the bleak ironies that pervade our supposedly tolerant, classless society. Their concrete neighbourhood, for instance, is called The Park, their drab building named The Waldorf. He is disgusted by wealthy business owners who underpay employees for their precarious, temporary jobs, and then lecture the poor on their work ethic. He is outraged that black men continue to be demonized by a police force that has proven itself to be criminally violent.
Police are an ominous omnipresence, randomly stopping black youth, demanding entrance into private establishments, breaking up parties, threatening deadly violence to any black man who dares to question them. The harassment escalates after one of Francis’s friends is shot and killed. He and Michael are horrified to come upon the body and police detain them at the scene. When Francis instinctively reaches out to protect his little brother, an officer strikes him in the face.
No one cares that these boys are traumatized by what they have seen—not the police and certainly not their mother. On the contrary, Ruth is mortified that officers have returned her boys to her doorstep like common criminals for all to see. Her greatest fear has been that Francis would become a “Cri-min-al!” Ruth unwittingly reinforces society’s racist image of her own son. Another excruciating moment, then, when we realize Francis cannot even escape racism in his own home.
Francis transfers his affection to his best friend, Jelly, the neighbourhood’s gifted disc jockey. The pair are close and spend most of their time together at the local barbershop where Jelly spins his records. They share a dream of musical success. Sadly, for Francis, it is a dream forever deferred. And Ruth never gets the chance to reconcile with her beloved son, which breaks her mind as well as her heart.
Comparisons can be drawn between Brother and Cecil Foster’s Sleep On, Beloved, H. Nigel Thomas’s Behind the Face of Winter, and especially Austin Clarke’s novel More, about a Bajan immigrant who loses her son to the streets. This novel’s success resides in Michael’s moving, pitch-perfect voice. His perspective is inevitably that of the outsider, partly because of his awkward personality and partly because he is mixed-race. Like biracial characters in many black Canadian works, Michael is always struggling to harmonize the African and North American aspects of his existence.
Chariandy distinguishes himself most in his depiction of Ruth whom he renders with gorgeous complexity: her ferocious love for her children, her fierce courage, her unbearable pride and violent frustration as well as her gentleness, her fragility and love of beauty. When Michael finds Ruth listening to Nina Simone, we understand Chariandy to be seeking a language for the essence of black women’s experience. It’s a portrait rarely found in the contemporary literature of black men. At the same time, Chariandy exhibits an affinity for the writing of black women. In one scene, Ruth, who requires constant supervision, wanders down into the valley. Michael and his ex-girlfriend find her standing by the creek.
Mother has noticed us now. She turns and adjusts the collar of her winter coat. The bottom of her skirt is stained damp, and she tries to hide from our sight her bare feet, her toes blackened with mud. She has a small bunch of the blue flowers in her hand, a bright blue, an unnameable pretty colour. Singular.
The episode is reminiscent of the passage in Alice Walker’s novel that describes the thrill of the colour purple and the scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved when a despondent old woman clings to a scrap of pink cloth.
Chariandy shares Morrison’s preoccupation with the problem of keeping black culture alive in a racist white society. One method of preservation turns out to be cooking. In the novel, Ruth passes her story down to her sons through her delicious Trinidadian meals. Another is the conventional oral tradition: Jelly transmits black history through his music. Indeed, Jelly is a homophone for djeli, a storyteller or praise singer in West African culture, tasked with safeguarding the people’s past.
[Jelly’s] genius was all about continuous flow, about ceaselessly mixing in one sound, one style, one era, with another. He worked magic with the cross-fader and the different equalizers, allowing us to recognize connections we’d never otherwise imagine. Between ska and blues. Between Port of Spain and Philadelphia. Between the 1950s and the late 1980s.
Jelly would “isolate the break beat, that precious particle of meaning, that three-second glimpse of the bigger story of a song, extending now forever,” which is a good way of describing what Chariandy achieves with this novel.
When it comes to preserving black history, Chariandy believes most in the power of the written word. Brother is a mesmerizing tale of a Caribbean family that suffers devastating loss in a harsh new land. It is Chariandy’s bid to keep that history alive.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a juror for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.