A boy becomes an unwitting caregiver as he navigates puberty in Jaap Robben’s coming-of-age novel Summer Brother.
When Brian is thirteen, his disabled older brother, Lucien, comes to live with him and their uncaring, impoverished father, Maurice, who works odd jobs to pay their rent. While Lucien’s assisted living residence is under construction, he needs constant care and attention, which Maurice is unwilling to provide; with Brian’s mother off on her honeymoon with a new husband, Brian is left to do the brunt of the work. Thrust into a world that’s more adult than he’s prepared for, Brian learns what is and isn’t normal and healthy in childhood, and that he deserves a better life.
Having lived alone with his father for two years, Brian has picked up on mannerisms and behaviors that he needs to survive in their unsafe neighborhood. He tells Emile, the potential new tenant next door, that he’s sixteen; he puts on a questioning front to clinch a deal for higher rent. His assertive guise is not true to his nature, though; in reality, he is unsure of himself, overly curious, and doesn’t want to wind up like his father, even if it feels inevitable. Secret meetings with Emile and a girl who lives with Lucien help Brian to realize that Maurice’s parenting methods are unsuitable, and that being a caregiver requires sacrifice and compassion.
The book’s language is precise and forthright as Brian observes, and portrays in stark terms, the intense, awkward, and lovely actions of those around him. Sharp exchanges reveal characters who are witty and earnest in equal measure.
Summer Brother is a harrowing novel about dysfunctional family dynamics and the universal awkwardness of being a teenager.
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