Brother by David Chariandy

“Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 132 pages.
Read on February 7, 2019.

This is the only full-fiction selection from the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist though its story is likely all too real for many. This is an intricate story of a set of first-generation Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, and their upbringing in the rough neighbourhood of Scarborough, Ontario in the 90s. 

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“Brother” will be defended by Lisa Ray in the Canada Reads 2019 debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.


The story has a weaving timeline that begins in the present day in which Michael is welcoming an old school friend, Aisha, into the home he still shares with his ailing mother after Aisha’s father has passed away. The two of them allude to a tragic event involving Francis and from there Michael ruminates on the details of his childhood opening the whole story up to the reader as well as the events that brought about the death of his brother, Francis.

Michael and Francis’ mother is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and with their father absent, she is the sole provider for her boys. She works hard, too hard, in order to keep food on the table for them. It is her character I find the most tragic. After Francis dies, she is never herself again. She tried so hard to bring her boys the best yet they were never able to overcome the impossible circumstances that poverty and race trapped them in.

Francis was the cool kid in the neighbourhood. Popular and into his fair share of trouble and with a dream of being involved in hip hop and music but was constantly fighting the barrage of prejudice against him. Kids from this neighbourhood were made up of a variety of immigrant families struggling to get by. Crime, poverty, and gangs became prevalent and not much was expected of kids like Michael and Francis, and like many of the kids in the neighbourhood, they got smothered in this trapt environment. Aisha was the exception. Aisha did well very well in school and managed to escape the neighbourhood with a scholarship. Aisha and Michael used to spend lots of time at the local library as a way to get out of the house and because Michael was never quite cool enough to hang out with Francis and his friends at a local barbershop.

The story is an encompassing story that touches on immigration, race, poverty and the Black Lives Matter movement, yet the approach of these difficult ideas is broached in such a delicate manner. It’s written in a very matter-of-fact way in that it emphasises that this is just another ordinary family and that their situation isn’t all that unique, making the impact of the story that much more poignant. It’s a very politically and timely piece that is uniquely Canadian in terms of the setting but all-encompassing with its ideas.

The ideas alone are enough to move you but the way Michael and his mother’s life end up, without Francis and without hope of a better life, are what truly make this novel.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 272 pages.
Read from April 04 to 08, 2015.

I’m so close to reading all the books in Canada-Reads 2015 now! One more to go. Intolerable is the only official memoir in this years collection and I don’t see how Intolerable could have been written any other way.  This book is about a family who is torn apart by history and guilt.

Kamal Al-Solayee, was born in Aden, Yemen in 1964. He was last of 11 eleven children in the arranged marriage of his parents. Despite what people believe of the Middle East now, it wasn’t always that way. Kamal’s father was a wealthy business man and his family enjoyed all the luxuries that came with it. From vacations, photos, clothes and restaurants Kamal’s family was well taken care of in the days of Aden. Kamal’s sisters enjoyed fashion and make-up as well as going to the beach in their bikinis, all activities that were completely normal for them to be partaking in at the time. This happy family life unfortunately did not last. When Yemen was decolonized, Kamal’s father lost everything. The family had to move away from Aden and live off the savings that Kamal’s father had accumulated in which they become middle class citizens.

During this time was when Kamal started to notice that was different in that he took more of an interest in what his sister’s were doing than the masculine activities his brothers took part in. He was always a self-proclaimed mama’s boy so he was able to get away with the behavior while he was still young. As time progressed Kamal began to figure out that he was gay while, unfortunately, his oldest brother started to adopt the strict Muslim ways that had started to spread through the Middle East. His brother began to put pressure on his sisters, who were successful career women, about their ‘demeaning’ dress and behavior and tried to get them to adopt Islamic ways. It wasn’t until the family moved to again to be with their father that things really changed. The country was changing drastically to adopting stricter Muslim laws. Slowing Kamal watched his mother and sister’s become oppressed and their spark fade. The quality of life in their homes also quickly deteriorated in the war-torn area that they were living in. As Kamal knew he was gay, he feared for his life as homosexuality is punishable by death. He knew he could no longer stay with his family so he made the heartbreaking decision to go to school in England.

From there, Kamal realized that he never wanted to return home. He then ended up in Canada and found his home in Toronto but the tension and guilt he felt over the crumbling conditions his family was living never stopped haunting him. He cannot explain to his family the new life that he is living. The wouldn’t understand his homosexuality or even his career choices.

The Middle East has a way of catching up with you no matter how far you run.”

This book shows the tragic reality of living in the Middle East and what it’s truly like for families that live there and for those who leave it. Kamal is what Canada is all about, as his friends often told him. Kamal came to Canada with nothing but guilt and a heritage he was hoping to leave behind him. While he found a home and success within Canada it wasn’t until he was able to confront his heritage and family that he was able to start feeling whole again. While he never fully reconciled with his family, he was at least able to come to an understanding. Kamal did what he had to do to save himself and live the life that he needed to pursue, but the guilt of leaving his family will likely never leave him.

A poignant read and a necessary one to grasp the real realities of the people living in the Middle East.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

3/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from April 01 to 19, 2014.

I am making my way through the Canada-Reads of 2014; Cockroach is the second book out of the five that were nominated that I’ve tackled so far.  Cockroach is a very interesting novel and as a reader you either like it or you don’t. That is, if you can tolerate the extremely depressing tone and existential theme. What I enjoyed most about this novel is that it provides the reader with insight into the life of a immigrant struggling in Canada, with a dash of mental illness and some descriptive philosophical ideas about our purpose in life. This review does contain some spoilers but I will mark them appropriately.

The plot is shaped by existential questions that are asked by an unnamed narrator who struggles with poverty, drugs, mental illness and suicide. This story opens with the main character, who is unnamed, sitting in a psychiatrists office somewhere in Montreal, Canada. What you learn as a reader is that the narrator is an unstable man, who enjoys beautiful women, steals and breaks into people’s homes to sit on their couches and eat their food and quite literally thinks of himself as a cockroach. He is obsessed with questions about his own existence and his own purpose. He has been mandated by the state to take therapy sessions as he recently failed at an attempt to hang himself. The psychiatrist is a beautiful blonde woman named Genevieve. It’s obvious from her interactions with the main protagonist that she does not understand him or the world that he lives in.

The protagonist has come to Canada from some unnamed country and the people he associates with are also immigrates to Canada. You meet Reza, who is a sketchy Persian sitar player who is obsessed with his self-worth and luring women into his bed by seducing them with his foreignness and lies. The protagonist isn’t particularly fond of Reza but he does hangout with him and do drugs after Reza finally pays him the forty dollars that he owed him. Through Reza, he meets: Faroud, a gay Persian man who speaks of the persecution and torture he suffered before he came to Canada. “The Professor”, which is what the protagonist calls the man because of his profession, one which, he is no longer doing in Canada. The Professor is a hypocritical man who doesn’t want to admit that he is poor. The protagonist hates this about him so he steals some love-letters from him that detail a weak long-term affair that The Professor has been having. Lastly, he meets Shohreh, a beautiful young woman who you learn **start spoiler** near the end has been raped by Islamists in Tehran **end spoiler**. With these character’s stories, the reader is shown each of their struggles in coming to terms what has happened to them as well as trying to live in a new country and the ultimate solitude that it creates. Violence and sex are a constant.

Through the protagonist’s therapy sessions, he is encouraged to get a job. He finds one in a Persian restaurant that Reza plays at occasionally. He works three days a week and becomes friendly with the owners daughter, Sehar. She is young and flirtatious and at one point, the protagonist catches her masturbating. Sehar represents a younger generation of immigrants trying to become the definition of what it is to be “Canadian” and step away from her heritage.

What brings the protagonist’s story into the stories of the people that he meets all together is, through his therapy sessions, you learn that he had a sister once. She married a despicable man who used to beat her ferociously. He admits to conspiring to kill her husband during that time but does not end up following through with it. **start spoiler** The result of him not being able to kill his sister’s husband unintentionally causes her death. Her husband kills her. After which, you can assume that his inability to deal with this scenario is what instigated him to hang himself in the first place. While developing a romantic relationship with Shohreh, the protagonist learns about her rape and abortion and finds that one of her perpetrators is a customer that comes into the restaurant that he works in. Determined to resolve the situation for Shohreh and the mistakes he made with his sister, the two of them conspire to kill Shohreh’s rapist when he comes to the restaurant one night **end spoiler**.

The ultimate comment the book is trying to achieve is to show the ineffectiveness of immigrant assimilation and how little the receiving country understands the struggles of a new immigrant. The protagonist thinks of himself as a cockroach because he is living in a world that doesn’t understand him or his needs as a human, so he lives like a cockroach, in filth.

Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone looking for something thought-provoking and well written and is alright with tolerating a bleak tone.