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book review

‘The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy’ by Masha Gessen

ORIGINAL FAMILY PHOTO FROM REUTERS

Early in Masha Gessen’s new book “The Brothers,” in a chapter titled “Love,” Gessen tells a captivating origin story. A teenage girl walking home alone on a May evening senses someone walking behind her. Nervously, she turns to see a young man there, a skinny and unthreatening stranger, and they fall into step together, talking.

“He had a way of projecting resolve and shyness at the same time,” Gessen writes, “a combination Zubeidat thought was lovely.” Soon after their chance meeting, the infatuated Anzor Tsarnaev brings the girl a bouquet of wildflowers. They believe that they are kindred spirits, and in the way of many young couples in love, that they are special, fated for a life that will be bigger, bolder, and brighter than those they see around them.

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This night in 1985 is the beginning of the Boston Marathon bombing story — the first meeting of the future parents of the Tsarnaev brothers — and Gessen, a veteran Russian-American journalist, brings the couple and their romance vividly to life. These are not the Tsarnaev parents as we have seen them, bowed by grief or defiant and disbelieving after their sons killed four people and injured 260 in April 2013. This is instead a striking, winsome couple, full of potential.

Many books about the bombing have been published, but none have gone as far to place the brothers in a global, historical context. How much that context matters — how much their parents’ aspirations, or their grandparents’ exile, shaped their decisions — is something every reader will assess differently.

On the opening page, Gessen acknowledges the lasting pain inflicted by the Marathon attack, and then posts fair warning: “This book, however, is not about that pain . . . it is about the tragedy that preceded the bombing, the reasons that led to it, and its invisible victims.” For those still wrestling with what happened that day on Boylston Street, this is a tantalizing promise: The brothers’ reasons have become a kind of holy grail, longed for and long sought, with any hope of knowing them fading by the year.

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Gessen, however, has an edge in this quest. Born in Russia, she emigrated to the Boston area with her family as a teenager, then returned to her homeland as a journalist to cover the Soviet Union’s transformation in the 1990s.

She divides “The Brothers” into three parts, beginning with the love story and family history and embedding it within a forceful chronicle of Chechen persecution, including the deportation of Anzor’s father, Zayndy. The second section brings the family to America and recounts the crushing failure of their bid for a new life—the parents’ marriage dissolving under pressure from health and money problems, the elder son unemployed, and the younger dealing drugs. Finally, in the third section, Gessen explores the consequences of the bombing for other immigrants whose ties to the Tsarnaevs left them vulnerable and changed their lives forever.

The book is most effective in its first and third parts, when the storytelling feels freshest and most vital. For American readers, most of whom know little of the Chechen story, the gut-wrenching clarity of Gessen’s account is a gift. Her prose is spare and highly polished, evoking the melancholy of the Tsarnaevs’s homeland. In Makhachkala, the capital of Zubeidat’s native Dagestan, “[t]he sounds of the railroad drowned out the murmur of the sea, and the bitter smell of tar . . . and the smoke of the engines overwhelmed the Caspian’s softly salty air.”

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This is not aloof, dispassionate journalism. Gessen’s voice runs through it, quietly assured in its judgments; she makes no claim of impartiality. She refers rarely to her own immigrant experience, but it is her Russian roots and adopted American identity that imbues her telling with authority. When she reports on the FBI’s treatment of other immigrants after the bombing, she reveals that federal agents first interviewed her when she was 16 — without informing her parents. This is the immigrant experience, pre-9/11 as well as after.

The first section of the book opens up like an origami swan, its broad historical and narrow familial scenes separating and then folding back together. In one poignant, early episode Zubeidat, living in Kyrgyzstan with her growing brood, consults an older mother on her block about how to raise the perfect children—polite, respectful and impeccably dressed. The writing here is vivid; the pace is measured, slowly building deeper understanding of the family’s nomadic quest for a better life.

When the family gets to Boston in part two, the story moves faster, flashing past like scenery outside a train window. The narrative seems to skip without settling into a rhythmic progression; the reader struggles to keep track of time and the boys’ development.

Gessen writes that, “Dzhokhar’s role was that of the sweet kid, the kid everyone loves,” and she suggests that he cannily crafts that role for himself. However her case for this is built vaguely, on the “spectacular . . . flatness” of his friends’ descriptions of him. Gessen seems eager to get past the most familiar part of the story — the bombing itself — and back to territory where few journalists have ventured, where she can break new ground and deliver new perspective.

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She arrives there in the book’s surprising, sometimes disturbing third section.

Among those she profiles are Reni Manukyan and Elena Teyer, the wife and mother-in-law of Ibragim Todashev, the Chechen immigrant killed by law enforcement agents during the investigation of the bombing. After coming to the United States from Russia in her 30s, Teyer joined the Army, became a citizen, and bought a home in Savannah, Ga. “Elena became,” Gessen writes, “a patriot of the United States.” After Todashev’s death, she is investigated by the FBI, forced out of the Army, and converted into a believer in the Tsarnaevs’ innocence. She concludes that “the same rules applied in this country as in the old one. The secret police killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later.”

The Tsarnaev brothers never come into clear focus in these pages, not like the sharp and nuanced portraits of their parents and others in their circle. Readers longing to understand what drove them will find a rich background tapestry, but no decisive moment or shocking discovery illuminates the brothers’ motivations. Gessen dismisses — too quickly, in my view — the possibility, first reported by the Globe, that Tamerlan might have been mentally ill, and while her study of his time in Dagestan in 2012 reveals more than previously known, she, like other journalists including the Globe’s, finds little evidence that he was radicalized there. She considers a range of conspiracy theories — some will undoubtedly raise eyebrows — and concludes it is likely that the FBI tried to recruit Tamerlan as an informant before the bombing, an assertion the agency denies.

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But if the brothers remain an enigma, what is illuminated is their world — Gessen demonstrates the fragmentation within communities when fear and suspicion take root, and she shows how tactics used to fight terrorism risk degrading the ideals we aim to protect, sowing bitter disillusionment in people whose American dreams turn into nightmares.

This is the ugly underbelly of the lauded Boston manhunt. Although law enforcement was praised loudly and publicly, Gessen shows the consequences of their harshest tactics — innocent people subjected to interrogation and surveillance, turning them against America — and confronting it can be uncomfortable. Yet she brings such serious purpose to her task, and so much care to the troubling questions she raises, it’s impossible not to read on. Her tenacious reporting commands our attention and makes “The Brothers” essential to understanding how the heartbreak here in Boston fits into the endless heartache of this world.


Jenna Russell, the co-author of “Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice,” can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com.