Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
The title of this intriguing addition to the Swedish crime genre suggests it is primarily about family. I would argue it is more about community – the communities we make and the ones we live in. The Swedish title was Orten which according to my Swedish friends means the place or the community.
Joakim Zander is at his most compelling when describing the hopelessness within those faceless, charmless, crowded suburbs that circle Stockholm, just as they do Paris, London, Leeds or Munich. The Brother goes some way to shedding light on the quiet tragedy of everyday lives that occasionally explodes into terrifying acts of anger.
An angry European Jihadi’s journey to fight for a troubling cause dovetails in The Brother with a tale of dastardly corporate doings which affect a much greater community than the company’s shareholders and executives.
The titular son is Fadi, a teenage or early 20s resident of Bergort outside Stockholm. We follow this young man’s conversion to the poisonous code of Daesh /ISIS and what happens when he goes to train with fellow travellers. His story is told in letters to his sister Yasmine, who has fled dismal Bergort for a supposedly glamorous life as a marketing consultant in Manhattan.
Klara, a Swede working for a think-tank in London, offers the third narrative strand to this globe-hopping tale. Her story rang the truest – intelligent and well-educated, Klara is a mess, a functioning alcoholic grappling with the size and the competitiveness of the Big Smoke. Her conscience has not been fully dunked in white wine yet and she serves as a plot motor in a shambolic but ultimately resolved pursuit of justice.
Zander (and translator Wessel) move the plot along at a healthy clip, using the three different voices and a dizzying variety of locations. It took me a few chapters to figure out who was who, and who was telling what. Once I got into the rhythm, the book zipped along like a film shot in multiple locations.
Fadi’s Syria and Turkey scenes are heart-breaking. This young man bought a lie and the lie smacks him hardest of all. Klara’s story, set in London and Stockholm, also wrenches the guts but for different reasons. Her character reminded me of the narrator in Fleabag recently aired on British television. Dissolute, irresponsible and chaotic, she appeals not in a train-wreck kind of way, more in that we know there is decency in the woman and we want to see how it comes out and what it accomplishes. Her London is a familiar and a credible one, Tesco Locals sell bad wine at dear prices, young men churn out cappuccinos with no career plan, and boyfriends are so leisurely and laid-back Klara wants to douse them in Chardonnay. Been there, seen it. It happens.
Less successful in my view was the big bad nasty company ‘pulling all the strings’ bit. It has been done before, successfully and less so, and this one just wasn’t sweeping enough to be silly-scary, nor was it credible enough to compel the reader to fear Big Brother’s snooping from every single CCTV camera.
In short, The Brother is a piercing family portrait, a breathy caper across Europe and into the Middle East and the US and an okay little gal-versus big nasty corporation yarn.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Clark Wessel