Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Half Brother.
In his first job just out of college, Charlie Garrett teaches English at Abbott, a private school in
north-central Massachusetts. Infused with tones reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita and reflecting a haze of unreality and anxiety, LeCraw's
novel has Charlie falling in love with student May Bankhead. May masks in Charlie what will soon become temporary solitude. This young, impressionable man is poised on the brink of something great. In a type of “sad freedom,” Charlie’s affair with May forces him to look at his family, his past, and his future,
causing him to realize that who he’s been perhaps doesn’t matter anymore.
In the opening pages of The Half Brother, the air is thick with the fine chill of spring mist
and a sense that Charlie is out of his depth. He forms a connection with school
chaplin Preston Bankhead, May’s beloved father, who has a reputation for being rigid and controlling,
although May respects him with all her heart. Preston’s cancer, slowly eating away at him, will come to symbolize Charlie’s potpourri of dark family secrets. Meeting for companionable chess nights, Charlie and Preston talk of their respective families in conversations that thrust Charlie like vertigo into another moment of guilt: “What am I doing here? In this foreign land?”
While May remains on hyper-alert, desperately in love with her new beau, Charlie hangs by a slender thread, trying to prevent the familiar and invisible disappointments. He thinks a lot about his tall, auburn-haired half-brother, Nicky, who turns heads on the street and has a profile “like a priceless coin.” Far away from his mother, Anita, and from the machinations of the kindly Satterwaite family, Charlie realizes that Nicky was the child who was “really theirs,” the one who’d been “born correctly.”
In this season of love and of family connections, the beginning of Charlie’s resolution with May’s unfortunate coupling, the troubling dichotomy between Charlie and Nicky, and the yoke of lifelong brotherly love will culminate in this small college landscape where the mountains roll westward toward the blue sea, giving the illusion of progress to “an unseen land.“ Haunted from his first days seeing May by a misty field, Charlie will soon have a reckoning with the ghosts of his past and what was left unsaid by his mother.
Striking to the heart of personal identity, LeCraw asks: how do we solidify our sense of who we are if we don’t know where we came from? In what ways can we take our place in the universe if our knowledge of our past is incomplete? For Charlie, there’s a “miasma of familiarity” as his search leads him back to Hugh Satterwaite. He knows immediately
that he’s the same ilk as Preston and a Southern culture that circles around a gentle, wry civility, a world far from Charlie’s memories of being a pimply teenager, the son of a vanished man named Jimmie Garrett.
LeCraw’s characters are beautifully drawn and larger than life even when her tale comes up a bit short. Using words and description in the same way that an accomplished artist uses her paints and brushes, LeCraw dredges from her sentences compositions that are heavily textured with passion and color and emotion, the stuff of dreams. A master
of imagery, LeCraw’s paragraphs flow like honey from page to page in many hauntingly beautiful and richly brocaded passages that highlight Charlie, May, and Anita’s dark passions and sinister secrets.
Although I thought the novel was well-written, it often comes across as incongruous. Resentments runs deep and racism might clash, yet these themes are more compelling in books written by other authors. That aside, there's a good story beneath the overstuffed quilt of LeCraw’s excessive plot. From the wayward, uncontrollable half-brother who stymies those around him, to the rejected girlfriend who runs off to Paris, and to her equally eccentric, stalwart family, The Half Brother is veritable smorgasbord of sites and sounds of teaching life as Charlie remains intractable in his loyalty to May and Nicky. It's just too bad that LeCraw didn't have enough faith in her well-thought-out characters not to have burdened them with an overreaching romance-novel narrative that eventually stumbles into soap opera territory.
While not nearly as compelling as The Swimming Pool, The Half Brother certainly leaves us enlightened on family dynamics where “hints, guesses, and ghosts” gain color and weight. From Anita’s dark, dreaded secret, to Charlie, the unwitting victim of a stomach churning fate, to unreachable, unattainable Nicky, who comes to visit Abbott and decides to stay, LeCraw proves that we can’t change the landscapes of our past even if we wanted to.