Mini-Reviews of Three Recent Releases: Chariandy, Dean & Tallack

Brother by David Chariandy

Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.

The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.

I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.

My rating:

Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


Sharp by Michelle Dean

“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.

You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”

Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.

My rating:

Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.


The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack

I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)

The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”

Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.

My rating:

The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

17 responses

  1. It sounds like you’ve had a few reads that have been almost there but not quite – I’ve been going through that kind of slump recently!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, these three I lumped together because I felt that I wanted to get them out of the way / out of my head. But then again, I just rated two books 5 stars the other day. So my reading has been a mixed bag recently. Do you have any interest in Sharp? I wonder what you’d make of it as a feminist historical project.


  2. We disagree about Brother but not about Sharp which I wanted to like but have given up.The Valley at the Centre of the World sounds like a bit of a challenging read!


    1. Ah, very interesting to hear that about Sharp. I have seen a whole range of reviews, some describing it as a glittering literary cocktail party and others questioning the purpose and the level of insight. I’ve read other group biographies that were more successful.

      I can see why Tallack thought Shetlandic speech was essential for authenticity, but it was hard work, as dialect almost always is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Valley at the Centre of the World sounds fascinating (is the dialect harder than reading a James Kelman?) but I wonder if I’d prefer his non-fiction. I do like a book about a small community. Sharp sounds like a sadly missed opportunity.


    1. I’ve not read Kelman, so couldn’t tell you 🙂 If you were to read just one of Tallack’s books, I’d recommend 60 Degrees North.

      There have been a ton of these feminist group biographies this year. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t seem to have a strong enough raison d’etre.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. buriedinprint | Reply

    The only one of these I know is David Chariandry’s and I enjoyed it more than you; his quiet way of observing the world clicks for me. He spent years revising the MS for Brother apparently, making it lean and strong, but obviously this isn’t going to be to every reader’s taste. I think it’s interesting that the story seems to take place outside of Toronto, as it actually takes place in the city proper, but there is a feeling of separateness that the characters feel, so I can see where it might seem like that, and I also wonder if the dust jacket and blurbing makes it seem that way on international editions too, for the very reason that you’ve suggested, that this story isn’t going to fit the idea that CanLit is all sweeping prairie epics and maritime sailing stories and red-headed orphans! Hee hee

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh. I think the press release actually said something like “outside Toronto” or “near Toronto.” I’ll change my wording to reflect your insider knowledge! Their community felt to me like an edgeland sort of place.


      1. buriedinprint

        Maybe it’s kind of like Hell’s Kitchen is in New York City, distinct but part of the city. Or maybe it’s also a reflection of the fact that the outlying areas of Toronto, like Scarborough, are often overlooked, like many people think Manhattan equals New York City thanks to Hollywood? It’s definitely not downtown Toronto with all the skyscrapers and subway travel, so maybe that’s what they were aiming to settle. Edgeland feels like an absolutely perfect way to describe it – for so many reasons – I love that!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m so ignorant of city geography. I’ve only been to NYC one day in my life, so I hear things like Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and I think, is that part of the city or its own place or what?


  5. Too bad you didn’t like Brother more, but I can also understand what you say about the “measured prose”. I’m curious to read his first book to see how they compare!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. buriedinprint | Reply

      Soucouyant is not as lean and it felt, to me anyway, as though we were invited into the heart of the story more solidly, so I wonder if you would enjoy that one more, too, Rebecca. It’s such a fascinating pair to me, because there are so many similarities but, somehow, the books feel completely different, so I’ll be super curious to hear how you compare them, Naomi. Also, there’s his new memoir-styled volume, which sounds like a powerful read as well…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I really wanted to like Brother more after all the rave reviews I saw from Canadian friends. (And Susan at A life in books.) I think I may well prefer Soucouyant if it’s ever made available in the UK. Since I’m a memoir junkie, I’d also read that!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, Brother was one of my favorites in 2017. A sad story but very vivid and the writing really got me. My review of it:


  7. […] was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the […]


  8. […] Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp. […]


  9. […] Karine Polwart, and Shetland chronicler Malachy Tallack (reviewed: The Un-Discovered Islands and The Valley at the Centre of the World), not to mention editor Kathleen Jamie. Archaeology and folk music evoke the past, while climate […]


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