‘Summer Brother’ by Jaap Robben (Review – IBP 2021, Number Seven)

As a great man once mused: war, what is it good for?  Well, we all know the answer to that, so let’s make a quick getaway from No Man’s Land and head off somewhere far less dangerous on the next leg of our International Booker Prize longlist adventures.  This time around we’re heading off on a holiday with a Dutch flavour, even if the setting is slightly uncertain.  It’s just us, a man, a couple of dogs and a young boy in a caravan – and if you think that sounds crowded, just wait until the boy’s brother joins the party…

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben
– World Editions, translated by David Doherty
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

What’s it all about?
Thirteen-year-old Bryan has a rather interesting life.  Since his parents’ divorce, he’s been living in an old caravan with his dad, the shifty chancer Maurice, while his mother has moved on and remarried.  One of the reasons for the divorce is Bryan’s elder brother Lucien, whose disabilities make caring for him difficult, leading to a decision to put him in a care home where Bryan goes to visit him occasionally (while his dad does his best not to spend more than a minute or two in the room).

However, one summer events take an unusual turn.  After a quick visit, the unit manager asks if Maurice and Bryan would consider taking Lucien home for a few weeks while the home is undergoing renovations.  Maurice immediately turns his request down, but then a thought occurs to him:

Santos turns to leave again and Dad asks “So how much do they pay?”
“It’s important to stress that this is a reimbursement, an allowance if you will.”
“And how much would that be, then?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have the exact amount to hand.  It depends on the length of the stay.”
“A rough estimate will do.”
“A little over two hundred and forty euros, if memory serves.”
“Excuse me?”
“Per month?”
“No, per week.”
p.28 (World Editions, 2021)

With money a little tight, to say the least, Maurice decides that the least he can do is take his son home for a month or so, keeping the exact nature of said home quiet.  However, when it comes to the caring, it soon becomes clear that he takes a rather hands-off approach – it’s Bryan who’ll be spending his summer holidays trying to keep Lucien out of trouble.

The situation is further complicated by their living arrangements, with Maurice and Bryan having to hide the fact they live in a caravan from the home and the authorities.  What’s more, they’re actually only tenants themselves, and sensing objections, they also keep Lucien’s arrival a secret from the landlords until it’s too late for them to object.  This all leads to constant tension, with something always about to go wrong, and as Maurice is usually conspicuous by his absence, it’s Bryan who has to deal with events a child shouldn’t have to handle.

Robben’s novel, then, is a story of a broken family and a summer spent trying to repair some of those ties.  It’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, and I’ve seen several comments comparing Summer Brother to the movie Rain Man.  While that might be a bit of a stretch (and Bryan is certainly no Tom Cruise…), there are definitely parallels there, with both stories featuring characters who come to understand their disabled brother better after spending some time with them.

During Maurice’s frequent absences, Bryan find himself having to turn to their tenant Émile when he’s feeling overwhelmed.  He’s a recent arrival who’s staying in another old caravan, rented from Maurice (who fails to pass on the money to the caravan’s owners…).  While for Maurice this newcomer is merely a cash cow to be milked, for Bryan it’s someone who cares enough to give him a hand when Lucien is too difficult to manage.  Émile has his own issues, but he does his best to help Bryan out, acting as a father figure for someone whose own dad isn’t up to the job.

A major part of Summer Brother is the time Bryan spends with his brother.  He genuinely cares about Lucien, and Robben shows us an overwhelmed teen doing his best to manage all the tablets, the showering and the nappy changing.  At times, he can be slightly thoughtless, cruel even, but he does his best, and most readers will feel the bond between the two growing, with Bryan learning to interpret Lucien’s few garbled utterances.  Of course, we’re also on a knife edge, sensing that their summer is unlikely to have a happy ending.

The main reason for this is Maurice, perhaps the most prominent figure in the novel.  He’s a thoroughly shady character, a chancer, too lazy to do proper work, but cunning enough to take advantage of any opportunity that crops up.  His nature is clear from the first pages when he short-changes the petrol-station attendant, cracks crude jokes and slips out of Lucien’s room almost before he’s arrived.  He disappears for hours at a time, leaving Bryan to care for Lucien, and though he claims to be off to ‘work’, there’s surprisingly little money arising from it.

Yet despite his bravado, he’s actually rather pathetic, and Robben does an excellent job of showing this, with many of the book’s best scenes coming when Maurice is on the defensive, caught out in his lies.  Here he’s pathetic and snivelling, and it’s inevitable that Bryan will eventually snap:

Dad kicks Rico out of the way and boots the door open.  He tries to switch on the light in my room, but the power’s off again.  “Jean and Henri are right.  You’re useless.”  Dad puts Lucien down on the indoor bed.  “If you’re out working all the time, how come we’ve got no money?  How come we can’t even live in a normal house?” (p.223)

One consequence of this summer is that his eyes have finally opened to his father’s true nature, and even if he’s unlikely to abandon him, their relationship has changed permanently.

Having read Summer Brother and last year’s IBP winner, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening (translated by Michele Hutchison), you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s something decidedly NQR about kids in Dutch literature.  Another strand here is Bryan’s slightly twisted relationship with Selma, a nineteen-year-old woman who lives at the home.  He leaves Lucien alone on several occasion, sneaking back to the home to play ‘games’ with her, and this is perhaps the most disturbing element in a book with several uncomfortable passages.  I’m really starting to wonder if there’s a compulsory unit on ‘Writing Disturbed Children in Fiction’ in all Dutch literature degrees…

If you’re expecting a happy ending, you’ll be disappointed, but like all coming-of-age novels, the protagonist does grow as a result of his trials, and Summer Brother sees Bryan coming through a tough time with his head held high.  Even if his present isn’t that great, there’s hope for the future, and if the closing scene is anything to go by, he’ll be seeing a lot more of Lucien, whatever his parents, and the home, think of that.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I enjoyed Summer Brother, and I breezed through it in a day or so, but I can’t say it’s really what I was expecting from a longlisted book.  In terms of my favourite reads, this would probably make my top six, but I don’t think there’s enough here to keep it there, with some of those I enjoyed less better written and with more depth.  No Dutch double this year, then – although, who knows?  I didn’t see last year’s winner coming either…

Will it make the shortlist?
In a year where there are very few stand-out books on the longlist, I have a strange feeling that the judges may well choose this as one of their final six.  I’ve heard other reviewers talk about comments made by the judges online, and in podcasts, where they seem rather excited by Robben’s book.  Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see it make the cut.

It’s time to bid Bryan and Lucien a fond farewell as we look forward to our next destination, and once again those hoping for five-star accommodation are likely to be disappointed.  We’re off to China, and we’ll be spending a lot of time out on the streets, avoiding animals and trying to make sense of the conversations we have with the locals.  If you want to complain about having to slum it, you’ll need to take it up with the writer herself – I certainly have no idea what’s going on…

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