My Brother is a bleak tale of childhood abuse and dysfunctional adulthood set in arctic Sweden. You will need to gird your loins, as the central characters, siblings Jana and Bror, are damaged individuals and their stories are loaded with pain. The darkness doesn’t end there: there are other troubled characters here too, most notably Jana’s lover John. Jana is drawn to the wrong kind of man, and a question hangs over how much John is victim and how much perpetrator. A pall also hangs over both John and Bror, as they are suspects in the death of John’s wife Maria, although another possibility is that she committed suicide.
There’s an atmosphere of decay hanging over the small, run-down isolated community to which Jana has returned after many years away. She almost gets lost in a blizzard and has to be rescued by John, a neighbour she hadn’t met before, spending the night at his house while the storm passes. In the morning she tracks down her brother Bror, only to find him in a state – he’s a barely functioning alcoholic since his wife left him. As the siblings reacquaint they inevitable rake up the past. Bror resents Jana’s absence when their mother died, but Jana is still angry that she didn’t protect them from their abusive father, praying for them instead. The violence of the past has left them both deeply scarred.
Jana, John and Bror are drawn to each other, perhaps seeking refuge from their own pain in others’ suffering. Bringing the three stories together certainly complicates the picture, but the collision of tragedies really illuminates the individual tales, the effects of the past on each character and the wider impact on the community – everyone knows everyone’s business but nobody intervenes in family affairs.
My Brother is an exposition on human frailty and resilience, and on despair and hope, and will resonate all the more since lockdowns have become prevalent, exploring, as it does, the nature of isolation and the need to suffer in silence within an inescapable toxic family environment.
When Jana gets a job as a carer, she opens another route into the past, to other points of view and to memories. Essentially this is a novel about how one generation can blight the next, creating a perpetuating toxicity. Can the truth set the survivors free from this cycle, and is there hope for Jana, John and Bror? These are questions that are only partially answered, but as this is the first novel in a trilogy, I expect further revelations and more clarity when the triptych is complete.
Smirnoff’s style is fluid but demanding, occasionally disregarding grammar for narrative drive, but the effect is darkly poetic and intense. Abuse is familiar territory in literary fiction but Smirnoff’s tale is insightful and well told.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Written by Karin Smirnoff
Translated by Anna Paterson
Published by Pushkin Press (2021)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s bookshop.org page.
Paul Burke writes The Verdict column for nbmagazine.co.uk, interviews, articles and features for crimetime.co.uk and presents for Crime Time TV. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.
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