Summer Brother

Summer Brother is the second of Jaap Robben’s novels to be translated into English (by David Doherty). Before the first of these, You Have Me to Love, was published in the Netherlands, Robben was better known as a children’s author, and Summer Brother also features, as its central character and narrator, a child – thirteen-year-old Brian. Brian lives with his father, Maurice – unreliable and often uncaring – in a caravan, while his older, disabled brother, Lucien, spends his days in an institution. The treatment of Lucien was one of no doubt many fault lines in his parents’ marriage – when it was decided he needed sedated to control his at times violent behaviour, Brian’s mother could not face seeing him, leaving the weekly visit to Brian and his father – only to discover, weeks later, that they have not been going. With the mother now newly married and on her honeymoon, Maurice, eternally behind with the rent and always short of money, takes advantage of an opportunity to look after Lucien while the institution is refurbished when he learns that funding is available. The actual looking after, however, is largely left to Brian.

Maurice’s attitude to Lucien can be seen when they visit him at the start of the novel. Not only has it been some months since they last saw him, but he soon leaves Brian and Lucien alone:

“Your brother would rather have a nap, by the look of it.”

Even the task of giving Lucien the chocolate egg they have brought him falls to Brian: “You’re better at this,” he tells his son. It is while feeding his brother chocolate that Brian meets another teenage patient, Selma, “a kind of ‘girllady’ whose breast have shown up early,” who unlike his brother, is both mobile and able to talk.

Maurice is, of course, immediately dismissive of any idea they might look after Lucien over the summer, until he hears there might be money involved. He tries to convince Brian how easy it will be:

“It’s not like he’s going anywhere. I’ll sort out a TV by his bed to keep him occupied the rest of the time and, het presto, another day gone. Quick wipe with a facecloth, brush his little gnashers and then beddy-byes. Nothing to it, right?”

(Doherty strikes exactly the right note in rendering Maurice’s dialogue into English in order to encapsulate his careless, care-free character, a kind of aggressive jollity). In contrast to Maurice’s optimism, Lucien’s arrival is not entirely plain sailing – for one thing, the bed that the hospital brings for him does not fit in the caravan. Maurice also has to contend with Jean and Henri, on whose land the caravan is situated: not only does he owe them money, but they have never been happy with Brian’s presence (“it’s no place for a child”) and are unlikely to be pleased with Lucien’s appearance. As usual, Maurice’s plan is to hope for the best:

“…once they clap eyes on him, they won’t dare send him away. Wanna bet?”

The novel is a coming-of-age story as Brian must deal with the adult role of carer while at the same time cope with the sexual feelings he has developed for Selma. Robben also adds an alternative adult role model for Brian in the form of Emile, who arrives with his tropical fish in desperate need of accommodation (exactly why is never entirely explained) from a middle-class world that seems a million miles away. In Emile, Brian finds someone he can talk to. That Emile becomes a father substitute to some extent can be seen from the way he helps Brian with Lucien, and is later trusted by Brian to look after him. In contrast to Maurice, when Emile encourages Brian (“That was hard work. You’re good at this you know”) it is not a simply a way to push the role of carer onto him.

Summer Brother is perhaps the most ‘novel-like’ of the International Booker long list – it is driven by character and story, has a clearly realistic setting, and grapples with social issues. Maurice, in particular, is a wonderful creation: thinking only of himself, always on the make, possessed of a bullying bonhomie – the Boris Johnson of the lower classes. The novel also explores attitudes to the disabled, not only through Lucien but through Brian’s relationship with Selma. Does he view this as acceptable because he sees her, like his brother, as a person, or is he influenced by his father’s perspective, that others are simply there to be exploited?

With a jury who seem to particularly admire books which test the boundaries of the form, the more conventional Summer Brother is something of an outlier on the long list, but it demonstrates that a more traditional approach can be as captivating and affecting today as it ever was.

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5 Responses to “Summer Brother”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Conventional maybe, but it sounds like a very moving story.

  2. Tony Says:

    Enjoyable, but a little lightweight compared to some other longlisters. Mind you, after a host of books that verge on non-fiction, it was nice to see an actual novel!

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