‘Brothers’ by David Clerson (Review)

img_5563While it’s true that I’m not entirely impartial when it comes to new Canadian press QC Fiction (as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago…), I’ve enjoyed their debut year of books immensely, impressed by both Life in the Court of Matane and The Unknown Huntsman.  However, today’s post shows that they were keeping the best for last, as the third offering for 2016 is the most impressive yet, a book that deserves a wider readership and (who knows?) may even get some prize recognition at some point.  Intrigued?  So you should be 😉  Now, let me introduce you to a couple of boys I know…

David Clerson’s Brothers (translated by Katia Grubisic, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins with two boys cautiously making their way through uncertain terrain:

They pushed through the beating wings and squawks, dozens of birds flapping around them.  Their feet sank into the muck.  The brine filled their noses, and the smell of muddy water, stagnant and swampy.  The first boy, who was missing an arm, walked uncertainly, as if his missing limb pulled him off balance.  The second followed a few metres behind, his stumpy arms too short for his body.  Both had water to the waist, and sweat poured down their faces, faces so similar, their dark eyes, the look of strange primitive gods.
p.11 (QC Fiction, 2016)

Their efforts pay off when they find a strange creature washed up by the sea, the remains of a creature from the ocean deep.  Or, as the younger brother insists, a sign from their unknown father…

The boys decide it’s time to leave their ageing mother behind in her little hut (with just her goats for company) when a second discovery, of a life-sized wooden puppet, leads to conflict with boys from the nearest village.  After making repairs to a wrecked boat that has been lying by the sea, and gathering supplies for the journey, they sail off into the wide blue yonder, an odyssey they hope will show them some of the world and perhaps bring them closer to their elusive father.  This is just the start of the adventures, but little do they know that tragedy is just ahead – and that only one of the brothers will return to their humble home.

Brothers is quite simply a wonderful book, a story that sweeps you along, and it’s possible that many readers will devour it in a single sitting.  Almost devoid of names for both people and places, there’s a fairy-tale feel to the novel, enhanced by the simplicity of their mother’s house and the lack of any modern allusions throughout the work.  It’s a story of two boys and their decision to venture out into the world, and we follow them across the sea and through the later adventures.  The chatty younger brother is the energy behind the pair, bubbling away with ideas and non-stop talk, but it’s the more pensive elder sibling who we end up following as he attempts to track down his absent father – a mythical creature of the boys’ invention, a dog who lives in the sea, only visiting his sons in their dreams.

As bizarre as it may seem, the dog themes continue throughout the novel.  After the tragic end to the first nautical experiment, the elder brother finds himself in the doghouse, literally, and the dog pelt he had made for warm clothing is now his own new skin.  It’s here that he encounters a female dog and must struggle with his urges, particularly when a larger dog comes on the scene.  It isn’t long before the boy-dog is on the run again, with the female dog under his protection and the howls behind them getting ever closer…

While I wouldn’t say the book is confronting, Clerson certainly doesn’t shy away from violence and bloodshed, much of it dealt out by the elder brother.  His guilt over what happens to the younger brother drives him to seek revenge, his one arm complemented by the wooden one his brother adapted for him from the puppet.  His wrath and revenge for wrongs done to him and his almost reach Biblical proportions, but this is all a distraction from who he’s really angry with:

He got up and looked out over the horizon, and saw a dark shape swimming under the surface, a ghastly shape swimming away from him.  He knew it: it was his father.  He had set sail for his father.  He had always been heading here. (p.115)

It seems, then, as if his wandering will end in an epic hunt at sea, pursuing a shadow beneath the waves for days on end in the hope of finally confronting his past.

But what is Brothers all about?  Well, it’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, where a boy comes to learn about himself.  With no father figure, the elder brother must forge his own path through life, but there’s always the sense that his father’s blood will play a part in shaping his future.  It’s the firm belief in this ‘canine heritage’ that draws out the aggressive nature within, causing him to snap when treated unfairly.  By the end of the voyage, he realises the man he is becoming, and even if he has successfully cast off his father’s shadow, the truth is that the darker parts of his journey have stayed with him, making a return to a normal existence impossible.

However, in truth, the beauty of the novel lies less in its themes and ideas than in the style, as it’s a story steeped in mythology, a modern myth, if you will.  The Greek influences are clear, with the book paying particular homage to The Odyssey (the long journey, the transformation into dogs, even the pig-children), and I like to think that Puppet is a nod to Jason and the Argonauts.  Perhaps a more important source, though, is the Oedipal myth.  When you take the boy’s desire to kill his father and add the hints of incest Clerson provides (the malformed arms, the grey female’s rather similar background), it’s hard not to imagine that the writer had the tragic Greek hero in mind…

Which is not to say that Brothers is merely a pastiche of a variety of Greek legends.  It’s a modern myth drawing on many other sources and forging them into something new.  The ravens that appear towards the end of the novel have a touch of Norse mythology about them while I’m sure more learned readers will know of several indigenous myths similar to the elder brother’s long hunt at sea for the spirit of his father.  There are even Biblical allusions (if rather twisted) in the mother’s claim that she cut the elder brother’s missing arm off in order to make a companion for him with her magic!

Of course, none of this would matter if the story didn’t read well, and Clerson has produced a breathless tale, with Grubisic’s translation succeeding in creating a text that pulls you along.  The surging, urgent sentences reflect the relentless movement of the story – with no destination in mind, the characters just keep moving forward, hoping for something better:

They didn’t know whether they were afraid.  They were neither hopeful, nor despaired.  They fled as best they could, as the grey female had so often fled, she who for the first time no longer ran alone. (p.95)

Along the way, we are witness to an array of fascinating, gruesome, grotesque scenes, perhaps the most memorable of which is the shadow of the two-headed boy, the puppet’s head strapped to his shoulder, as he prepares to take revenge on a farmer and her family.  This all culminates in the hunt scene, which proves to be just as exhausting for the reader as for the boy in the boat…

Brothers is definitely the pick of the three QC Fiction books so far, short but enthralling (I’ve read it twice, and I’m sure I’ll try it again).  I found many similarities with last year’s Best Translated Book Award winner, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (and, by the way, I’d love to see a commentary, similar to translator Lisa Dillman’s afterword in that book, on the origins of Brothers), which bodes well for its chances of attracting wider attention.  I hope the book is in the judges’ minds as I think it could (and should) do very well, but regardless of prize success, I’m sure Clerson’s book will find the readership it deserves.

13 thoughts on “‘Brothers’ by David Clerson (Review)

    1. Joe – Yes, it’s funny what gets attention and what doesn’t – I hope this gets read. I compared it to the Herrera in the post, but there’s a lot of Sjón about this too…


  1. You make it sound very interesting. I just wish it were a little more affordable as I’m sure my library system will not be acquiring much indy Québécois lit.


  2. I have a copy of this sitting on my shelf. Your discussion of Greek myth in it makes me want to pick it up immediately and read it! Thanks for the excellent and thorough review, Tony.


  3. OK, I’ve now finished the novel and my own post on it, so returned to take a look at yours – I see we make some similar points. Sorry, should have included a link to this and other blog reviews – will put this right.


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