Written by David Adams Richards
(Doubleday Canada, 2014), 401 pages.
Reviewed by Meredith Gillis
* This review first appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.
This is the first book by this well-known author I’ve ever read. I picked it up because I was curious about the novel he had been working on during his residency at my alma mater, and because I knew his other work had won prizes over the years.
Time and again as I worked my through it, I would pause to copy down an especially apt passage regarding the sin of betrayal. I copied brief quotations about how faith and love—or their lack—influence lives in ways we might never imagine.
I was drawn in to this fictional world set on the banks of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick and became engrossed in the lives of Ian Preston, Harold Dew, and Evan Young as they grew from their boyhood pact as atheists and blood brothers to men of belief in one form or another.
Sydney Henderson, who made a pact with God to never harm another living soul in Mercy Among the Children, returns as a minor character in Crimes Against My Brother which takes place on a concurrent timeline. Sydney’s role in Harold’s, Evan’s, and Ian’s lives is hardly minor. It is his pact they mock when they make their own, and “in a circuitous way, then, all of them by this challenge were trying to prove themselves to Sydney’s God by disproving that He was ever needed at all.”
Another character, Lonnie Sullivan, plays at helping them and many others but only cares for his own profit and is responsible for nearly all their misfortunes, but is never really blamed. All three of the blood brothers separately try, and eventually all succeed, in freeing themselves from his influence, but not without changing for better or for worse because of it.
Annette Brideau, lust and love for whom triggers the first betrayal between the blood brothers, is both repugnant and pitiable. Of the women in the town she is the most fully developed, but least likable, perhaps because she is like Lonnie, so entirely self-serving and afraid of honesty throughout the story. What makes Annette pitiable is the knowledge she is the biggest victim of Sullivan’s help and truly does not see any way out.
“It is dangerous not to think of your friends as your greatest enemies. It is dangerous not to think that those who have conformed in their views all their lives will not conform when thinking of you, and not want you to enliven their boredom or affirm their belief in how they were told the world works by reveling in your destruction.”
I can see why so many refer to Richards as a moralist. Although very few of the characters presented are easy to see as good people, it is very clear they do have their own codes—however warped—and a desire to do the right thing. Time and again minor characters provide opportunities for redemption, but not without the reader learning about their own betrayal they are trying to ignore or make up for.
“And he was right to think betrayal was the greatest of sins. The problem was, he was unsure of why he thought this, nor did he ever think that he himself betrayed others.”
From the perspective of the unnamed former sociology professor narrating the goings on of the town in which the events take place, Bonny Joyce-Clare’s Longing, the reader has the sensation of simultaneously being within the town and a lecture hall. The reader is part of the story, complicit in the actions taken by Ian, Harold, Evan and Annette through their observation. Occasionally a passage speaks directly to those in the lecture hall.
“Concern without suffering allows us to think we are fine men and women, although none of us is required to prove it. We live in a country full of fine men and women who wouldn’t hurt a fly – who wouldn’t say “Indian” but “First Nations,” and who wouldn’t know one First Nations person if they met him on the street; who would ban Huckleberry Finn but never be able to create one. This is the country of transgressionalists who deplore religion yet have created their own, more sanctimonious than any other you could imagine.”
Crimes Against My Brother is a challenging read because it is so relatable. No one reading it could do so without thinking of their own mental gymnastics to allow this or that vice. Characters use curse words sparingly, giving them great impact when they do appear. It also contains allusions made to the childhood rapes of two characters (in both cases relevant to their development but not emphasized as integral to their identity) and discussion of health care policies regarding abortion. While it does contain some violence, it is not overly graphic in its description.
If you want to read a book about the triumph of good over evil where characters make the morally correct decisions, this book is best left on the shelf. If however, you are interested in reading a book where people make bad choices and survive difficult experiences, where small good can be found in bad situations, and where even in his apparent absence God is present and active in the lives of characters, by all means pick it up. Crimes Against My Brother is not a large book, but it weighs heavily during consumption.