by Simon French
Simon French has written a stack of books and won as many awards for his writing. so I’m ashamed to say that Other Brother is the first of his titles that I’ve read. From page one I was hooked. I was coming down from a foray into fantasy and so the books I’d picked up prior to this one hadn’t grabbed my attention. I was definitely suffering from a book hangover. But French’s light touch and subject matter had me from page one and I found myself counting minutes until lunch breaks or times when I could stop whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.
In chapter one we’re introduced to Keiran – your fairly standard young boy. He’s not a mean kid, but from the first time he meets his cousin Bon things don’t go well. As Keiran’s mother snaps a photo of the two boys Bon leans close and smiles, saying “we’re brothers, we are”. Keiran tenses, hating this stranger’s intrusion into his life and his family. His animosity towards Bon grows after the boy leaves and Keiran discovers that two of his toys are missing. Bon drops out of Keiran’s life for two years, dragged back to his vagabond life on the road with his mother. And then he comes back. This time for good.
Bon’s reappearance isn’t welcomed by Keiran, who hasn’t let go of his grudge from two years earlier. Bon has grown into a weird kid, with a girlish plait and a ratty rainbow beanie. Bon can’t do anything right – when he starts attending Keiran’s school, Kerian stands by, pretending not to know him as he’s teased and bullied. He hates Bon for not even trying to stand up for himself. Everyone in Keiran’s family sees Bon as the victim, but for Keiran, he’s the fly in his soup. And to make matters worse, Bon has managed to befriend the other new kid Julia, who frowns at Keiran for his attitude towards his family.
It’s hard as an outsider to empathise with Keiran, who comes across as so sulky and unfair that you want to shake some sense into him. I haven’t found myself so invested in a story like this for some time – watching everyone try to explain Bon’s situation to Keiran, and then seeing him turn his back again and again is heartbreaking. If I could have helped Bon myself, I would have. It was this passion that dragged me through the book. I devoured page after page, desperate to know what it would take for Keiran to man up and shift his perspective outside his own self-centred desires.
At it’s heart (and I say that deliberately, as Other Brother has heart in spades), this is a book about family. At the periphery there’s the story of an outsider trying to fit in at school (and the side story of Julia, who’s mysterious background acts as the catalyst for the climax of the book), but the story focuses much more on family dynamics than anything else. French could have chosen to write about Bon as the central character, describing his difficulties fitting in via conflicts with school bullies. While those conflicts are there, it is Keiran’s behaviour that is heartbreaking, much more so than the schoolyard bullies. His attitude towards Bon and the dynamics within their extended family provide the gripping emotional background to the book and forces readers to invest themselves thoroughly in every page.