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Book Review: Other Brother by Simon French

 Book Review: Other Brother by Simon French

Kieran lives in a small town thats all about weekend football, meat and two veg, and boys being boys and girls being girls. Theres no room for eccentricity, and theres no room for ambiguity. So when new kid Bon shows up at school sporting a long plait, toting a sketchbook, and favouring storytelling over football, its little surprise that hes unceremoniously cast out from the crowd. Whos the girly-boy? asks one of the football teaman adultwhen Bon first makes an appearance.

Kierans friends Lucas and Mason are equally unimpressed: Check out his hair, they say. Even though, thinks Kieran, Lucas is always fussy about keeping his hair combed and styled, and Mason sports shaggy surfie locks despite living hours away from the beach. The difference is that these two are working within established masculine norms, and they have the street cred built up from years of pushing about the school underlings.

Not-quite-cool Kieran has spent the past year trying to worm his way into their friendship group, but his desperation to be one of the gang means that hes never quite got there. Lucas and Mason are all he has, though, so hes hardly going to tell them that Bon is his cousin, is he? After all, Kieran hardly knows Bon, the weird, scruffy kid he remembers only for having stolen two of his toys during a rare visit a few years before.

Bon has always been on the move, you see. His mother Renee does her best, but the challenge of looking after a child is too much when she can barely look after herself. With Renee scarcely coping on a day-to-day basis, Bon fends for himself: he has a fierce independent streak thats buoyed by his optimism and creativity. But though Bon arrives at school in ratty clothes and without having had breakfast, its not this that makes him an outcast. Its the fact that hes uncomplainingly content with who he is, and that hes quietly self-assured.

Though it might be fine for a kid to go about poorly dressed and acting differently if he at least had the decency to acknowledge that he was beneath the others at school, its this lack of interest in the strict schoolyard pecking order and the accepted ways of belonging that makes Bon a target, and despite (or perhaps more accurately because of) his placid, neutral attitude, hes incessantly bullied by Kierans friends, and since Kieran, unlike Bon, is fearful of not fitting in, Kieran himself. Kieran is both scornful and dismissive of his cousin: hes embarrassed to be associated with him, but hes also jealous of the special treatment he feels that Bon receives, and the way that hes muscled his way into Kierans household. Do you speak up for Bon? asks Kierans Gran at one point. Do you actually speak to him at all, Kieran? Kierans silence says it all.

But when Bon comes to live with Kieran, the latter slowly begins to accept that theres more to his cousin than he wants to admit. He learns how much he has taken for granted in his own life: havent you ever owned a lunchbox before? he says scornfully at one point. And no, Bon hasnt. The tragedy of Bons home life is most evident in Kierans parents responses to his demonstrated competence in various areas: Bons actually a really good swimmer. Im surprised. Where would he have learned? says Kierans mum at one point. And at another, Bon youre a good reader, really good.

The two have a surprising amount in common, including a mutual friendship with a fiercely egalitarian little girl called Julia, who due to her own past, which is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, is a staunch supporter of the wronged. Between this friendship, late-night bike rides, Bons telling of stories about Bon the Crusader and Kieran the Brave, and his parents reiteration that Bon has led a difficult life, Kieran begins to see his cousin in a new light.

Other Brother is a thoughtful novel that touches on the topics of bullying, family, fitting in, and masculinity, and other than a slightly awkward start, its a very strong read. Kierans ambivalence over his cousin and the ease with which hes lured by the glamour of popularity is well-drawn, and though its not always easy to read, its very believable. I did have a few questions, such as why the cafe owner providing Bons breakfasts didnt contact the school or perhaps even Kierans family, given that in such a small town she probably knows them; and also why Julias mother and Renee happen to arrive in this small town at the same time. Perhaps Ive misjudged the size of the town, in which case these would be non-issues, but it does seem to be quite a small, insular place.

These small gripes aside, however, this is a solidly written, thoroughly enjoyable read from a popular Australian author.  

Rating: star Book Review: Other Brother by Simon Frenchstar Book Review: Other Brother by Simon Frenchstar Book Review: Other Brother by Simon Frenchhalfstar Book Review: Other Brother by Simon Frenchblankstar Book Review: Other Brother by Simon French (very good)

With thanks to Walker Books Australia for the review copy

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One comment

  1. Great review Of Other Brother. Thank you so much from the author. Just a teeny correction: in the gripes department,the arrival of Bons and Julias mothers together is explained in the text and is an interesting moment in the storytelling as Bon and Julia covertly share their circumstances while their mums bond in the front seat over almost a whole packet of cigs.

    And, the fact that the café staff didnt pass on this info about Bon eating in would be quite normal in a country town.People dont like to cause a loss of face in a small setting.
    Let me know if theres anything else!

    x x x