Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.

 

 

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers  and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West.  The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway.  And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.

fc9ef780abf3d053a5beb8a9289d2ec9I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest.  But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did.  I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads.  It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.

It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City.  Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer.  He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock.  Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America;  Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa.  As the novel opens it’s 2008.  Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street.  Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves.  Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family.  Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection.  As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil.  Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.

It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.

She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building.  You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue.  You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America.  The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.

Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly.  Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.

mbueauthorphotockirikosano
          Mbue

It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth.  They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived.  I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had.  There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together.  I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende.  Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.

Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America.  Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel!  How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader.  It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate.  It would make an excellent pick for a book club.  I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.