The Brothers K

I’m hesitant to write about this book.  I read it last year and it is, hands-down, my all-time favorite novel.  I wish I had read it later in my life because now the bar is just so, so high and I’m afraid nothing I read will ever manage to touch it.  And it’s vulnerable to write about a book that means so much to you.  It’s like showing your BFF your most favorite movie of all time and as the final credits roll, you turn to her eagerly but all she does is shrug and say, “it was ok.”  It crushes your spirit!  How could she not love it as you do?  Did she even SEE the same movie?

At my book club, we always start by going around the table and getting everyone’s rating of the book.  Whoever gives the book the highest rating starts the discussion.  That way, you get to sing the praises of the author and the story and the characters without anyone sullying your experience with their sour grapes.  Needless to say, I started the discussion when we read this book last Winter.  And I was relieved to discover that my friends weren’t far behind with their own ratings and it was probably our highest rated book of 2013.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Brothers K by David James Duncan.  I’ll try not to gush too much.

brotherskcover
My rating: 9.8
The writing itself is outstanding.  While I’ll admit that it’s a slower read, especially in the beginning, the prose is mesmerizing.  I re-read so many sections and even read some of the book out loud to my mom over the phone.  It was good enough that I felt like I had to share it with someone, had to hear someone else say “wow…” with me.

The characters were complex and completely captivating.  The book follows the life of the Chance family through the 50s, 60s and 70s and there wasn’t a single character who was 100% good or 100% bad.  Each one was a mix, like real people.  I found myself liking and loathing them in turn and I was gripped by the stories that engulfed them, large and small.  And somehow, even though they are a largely dysfunctional lot, I found myself yearning to be part of their family.

I laughed out loud while reading it, especially during some of the scenes in Sunday School at the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  I also cried quite a few times.
I knocked off 0.2 because of two things;  (1) The mom was not altogether believe-able to me.  It was the only time I was taken out of the novel, so to speak, to ponder whether or not it was a realistic portrayal.  And (2) I grew a little weary of Everett Chance during the Vietnam War.

It took me nearly a month to finish and I felt despondent when the book came to a close.  It was hard to let the characters go after all that time. I was so invested and had enjoyed the story so immensely.  Some of the book has stayed with me, even after all these months.   In addition to good writing and a good story, that’s one of the signs of a good book, I think.  It stays with you in some way.  A quote, a feeling, an emotion or some sort of inspiration.

Here’s one of my favorite excerpts…

{Peter, one of the Chance brothers, talking with his younger sisters as they grapple, in the abstract, with their mother’s abuse}

“That’s the interesting thing about witches, the challenge of them — learning not to hit back, or hit somebody else, when they zap you.  You can just bury the zap, for instance, like the gods buried the Titans in the center of the earth.  Or you can be like a river when a forest fire hits it —phshhhhhhhhhh!   Just drown it, drown all the heat and let it wash away…

And the great thing” he said, “the reason you can lay a river in the path of any sort of wildfire is that there’s not just rivers inside us, there’s a world inside there.”

Seeing Bet’s scowl deepening, he added, “Not because I say so.  Christ says so.  And Krishna.  But I feel it sometimes too.  I’ve felt how there’s a world, and rivers, and high mountains, whole ranges of pure, deep blue lakes.  Thousands of them.  Enough to wash away all the dirt and trouble and witchiness on earth.”

“But to believe in them!  To believe enough to remember them.  That’s where we blow it!  Mountain lakes?  In me?  Naw!  Jesus we believe in, long as He stays out of sight.  But the things He said, things like The kingdom of heaven is within you, we believe only by dreaming up a heaven as stupid and as boring as our churches.  Something truly heavenly, something with mountains higher than St. Helens or Hood and lakes purer and deeper than any on earth — we never look for such things inside us.  So when the humps of witchiness come at us, we’ve got nowhere to go, and just get hurt, or get mad, or pass them on and hurt somebody else.   But if you want to stop the witchiness, if you want to put out the fires, you can do it.  You can do it if you just remember to crawl, right while you’re burning, to drag yourself if that’s what it takes, clear up into those mountains inside you, and on down into those cool, pure lakes.”

————–

That section has stayed with me and I’ve re-read it at least a dozen times.  It’s an entirely new way to look at the line about the Kingdom of heaven and the very thought of lakes and rivers and mountain ranges within me makes me feel expansive, lovely, sacrosanct.

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