Francis and Michael walk side by side for a time through the grimy streets of a depressed neighborhood on the outskirts of Toronto as kids, teenagers, young adults, and then are lost to each other in David Chariandy’s elegiac and incendiary second novel, “Brother,’’ a portrait of struggling immigrants and their disenfranchised children.
The two brothers make this journey in companionable silence, “gentle with each other’s hopes and dreams,” or in the face of the awesome and articulate rage of their Trinidadian single mother, who works all the time and spouts admonitions in her precious home hours in an attempt to keep her children safe.
As the novel opens, Michael’s childhood girlfriend, Aisha, now a writer, arrives after an absence of years to stay with Michael’s family after the death of her father in a nearby town. Her visit and her fresh grief force a crisis of acknowledgment between mother and son about the loss of firstborn Francis. From there, the mystery of Francis’s absence stays just out of reach for a time while the conditions that precipitated it take center stage.
Narrated by an adult Michael and told in flashbacks to the 1980s, “Brother’’ collects a cast of familiar characters in the usual predicaments that blight immigrants and the neighborhoods in which they attempt to survive. Parents yearn for homelands they cannot mourn for, fearing the upending of the cherished goal of raising “examples,” whose success depends upon the relentless affirmation of possibility. They work in offices and grocery stores, raise other people’s children, clean malls and empty bedpans in hospitals, while pushing “chronically tired notions about identity and respectability.”
Their children aimlessly hang out, stuck in limbo between a society that, by and large, seems to despise them and lost cultural heritages of everywhere “from Trinidad and Jamaica and Barbados, from Sri Lanka and Poland and Somalia and Vietnam.” Into this thicket of deracinated humiliation and hunger is periodically thrown the hand grenade we call the police. As Michael, the younger of the two brothers, puts it, his hands around Aisha’s waist, a world about to open up, “a siren wailed, and just as suddenly all was lost.”
What is passed down between generations, no matter the cost, is hope. In a moving reminiscence about their childhood, the boys’ mother comforts them by describing the moths that fly about the banks of a local creek they like to frequent as ragged bits of paper carrying a “scattered and wasted alphabet.” Then, she says: “Cup your hand and feel the proof of them against you. They’re not trash. They’re living things. And they’re flying.” That innate knowledge of their own worth, the dignity that longs to be seen, proves irresistible even to Francis, though he is in lock-step with a god that has other plans for him.
He dispenses a steady stream of advice to his inept younger brother, gifted neither with his beauty nor his guts, but most poignant is this: “Doesn’t matter how poor you are. You can always turn up the edge of a collar to style a bit, little things like that. You can always do things to let the world know you’re not nobody. You never know when your break is coming.”
These brothers are composites in their affectations of street culture and birth order, but Francis is rendered beautiful in his specificity. He is laconic yet tender, fiercely loyal without needing to explain the origin of his love. Girls adore him; boys respect him not for any particular thuggery but because of his intensity. In a memorable scene, when a hood threatens Michael with a hunting knife, Francis grips the blade, gashing himself, until the boy lets it go, proving “that with one gesture, you could forever confirm a reputation. Not only that he could stand his ground but that he could, when pushed, go mad.”
Throughout, too, his faith in Jelly — the DJ aesthete who can mix a Congolese rhumba, Etta James, a guitar lick from Hendrix, and a tabla to draw forth the deeper truth of a song — confirms a gentle-hard sensibility, one that can hitch its wagon to a faint star and swear to its brilliance.
Chariandy, like Mohsin Hamid, keeps his prose spare and tight. Limacol cologne and breadfruit go head to head with gallivanting ragamuffins and hooligans to evoke a host of brown cultures. “The silly of disco” is all we need to describe the genre. “A boy named Jelly. A barbershop called Desirea’s” are equally characters in yet another musical mash up and the axis of Francis’s life.
Throughout, past, present, and future nudge against each other with a syncopation that mimics the disparate musical traditions that Jelly weaves together amid the hair oils, grease, and sundry filth of a makeshift hair salon cum studio where the highest hopes are nurtured and also shot through the heart and left to bleed.
It is fitting that the tell overwhelms the show in this novel, like at Desirea’s, where kinships were possible, new languages learned, and meanings kept close as skin. Sometimes, secrets are all an immigrant is allowed to keep.
By David Chariandy
Bloomsbury, 180 pp. $22Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan and American writer whose work includes the novel “On Sal Mal Lane,’’ and the upcoming anthology “Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security.’’