by David Clerson
Grand prix littéraire Archambault 2014
It is the language that hits you first. Frères is no Game of Thrones, but although firmly rooted in the well-written surroundings of literary fiction, we are in a fantasy world, a world of myth and fable. It is a reflection of our own familiar world in a distorting mirror, a world of “monstrous creatures, bigger than anything they could imagine, two-headed fish, turtles with shells as huge as islands, whales with mouths big enough to swallow whole cities,” all seen through the eyes of two brothers, the elder missing an arm, the younger fashioned by his mother from that arm so that his sibling would not have to face the cruel world alone.
The language is evocative, at times biblical (“they whose bodies bore the deformities of Gehenna”), at times gruesome, often aggrandizing (a beetle looks like “an insignia brought back by a prophet from another era”), but always fresh and original, drawing us into “worlds hostile and strange”:
“One night when he had gone to bed, his thoughts filled with the monster they had found in the marsh, the elder brother saw his dog of a father. His enormous head had come in through the open bedroom window. There he was, his half-open mouth above the bed, with his black gums, his damp hair, his drooping ears, and slobber oozing out of him in a steady stream. He said nothing. He didn’t growl either, or bark. He slobbered in silence. And his warm, slimy slobber dripped down from his murderous mouth, a mouth that could kill, and soaked the elder brother’s bed, drenching his bedclothes and mattress.”
The plot is both simple and unbelievable. Two brothers set out in search of their “dog of a father” on an improbable adventure, “slaying monsters, stopping storms in their tracks, flying like a flame across the sky.” Their mother—her legs growing old and her eyesight failing as she gradually turns to dust—is their only source of information, but she is notoriously unreliable, her tall tales changing “with the passing years and the old woman’s humour.” In spite of this, the brothers believe every word that comes out of her mouth and begin looking for their dog of a father—the novel’s increasingly dark imagery driven by the literal meaning they lend her words—in “worlds of darkness and violence, undomesticated worlds, where nothing was held on a leash.”
This world is wild and very much alive. The wind is forever blowing; we see and smell and feel the rot and decay of the sea. Leech children, piglet boys, and wooden puppets put in appearances as ideas come to the brothers in dreams and, as with Francie Brady in Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, the dehumanizing influence of the narrative is felt more urgently as the novel goes on, as the barriers between man and nature crumble. It is quite the journey as the novel descends into excess, delirium, and the phantasmagorical.
Review by Peter McCambridge
Now available as Brothers from QC Fiction