Book Review - Summer Brother

The central premise of Summer Brother, Jaap Robben’s evocative coming-of-age novel, longlisted for the International Booker prize, is that love can thrive in the unlikeliest of places. Thirteen-year-old Brian lives in a dilapidated caravan on a piece of scrubland with his feckless father, Maurice. His older brother, Lucien, physically and mentally disabled, resides in the local care home. Their mother, Milou, has remarried. One summer, the manager offers

Maurice a generous allowance to look after Lucien while they undergo renovation works. Maurice manages to evade a “house” inspection and Lucien duly arrives by minibus at the end of their dirt track. Naturally, Maurice cedes responsibility to Brian and we follow his ill-fated attempts to look after his brother, from changing his nappy to teaching him to walk. Brian is aided by Emile, their enigmatic tenant-neighbour, who arrives one day with a car full of boxes and a portable aquarium and moves into the caravan next door.

Robben’s background as a playwright is evident in his astute characterisation. Lucien is an angry, sometimes violent, 16-year-old with severe mobility issues who relieves his stress through masturbation or bottle smashing. Maurice, criminally negligent, resorts to blackmail as his debts mount. Brian is sly and develops a perverse obsession with another patient, Selma, an attractive 19-year-old with the mind of a child. Miraculously, we retain a degree of sympathy for them all, aided by Robben’s nuanced descriptions: Maurice’s hair smells of “threadbare carpets”, while Milou is “a sheet of glass that could crash to the floor at any minute”.

 It is easy to forget this is a work in translation, so deft is David Doherty’s rendition from the Dutch. There is humour in the characters’ interactions and the moment Brian saves Lucien from drowning is particularly poignant: “There they stand… two boys knee-deep in a stream… like they were hugging. ‘You are my brother,’ I tell him. ‘We are brothers.’” Robben depicts the limitations of a dysfunctional family but also celebrates empathy as a force for good.

 Originally published by The Observer

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