Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review: We Never Talk about My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

To put simply as possible, Peter Beagle is an excellent story teller.

His best known work is probably The Last Unicorn, and for good reason. I finally got around to reading that book about a year ago, and since I started this blog, this is the third book of his that I've read since. (The Innkeeper's Song is great; A Fine & Private Place is... more of an acquired taste.) The book at hand, We Never Talk About My Brother, is a book of short stories, which plays to Beagle's strong point--while the stories vary in quality, there is always one moment in each one where you realize you're reading something special.
Spook & Chandail: Both stories based in fantasy worlds Beagle's already established. Spook is part of the Joe Farrell stories (I've never really read any of them, so I can't judge that aspect). It's a duel betwen Joe and a ghost, using bad poetry as the weapon of choice. It's a lighthearted story, although you probably get more out of it if you're familiar with the poetry. Pretty much the opposite in tone, Chandail is a story of Lal from The Innkeeper's Song. It gives some pretty significant closure on the character, but it definitely requires the former book to be read to get the full effect.
The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French. Oddly as it sounds, the title pretty much is the plot here. An ordinary man turns French. It starts off as a sterotypical poke at what it is to be French, and ends with a deep, meaningful examination of what it means to be French. There's a real sense of wistfulness, that something perhaps not important, but irretrievable, has been lost.
By Moonlight. A highwayman stumbles upon a retired preacher who just spent a hundred years with the Queen of the Fairies. This story really shows how Beagle is a storyteller, as opposed to just a writer. He could have presented the preacher's story directly as a third person narrative. But by turning it into a story told to the highwayman, it subtly changes the tenor. Rather than watching over the preacher's shoulder, we sit at the campfire with him. (Plus, it's a total Midsummer Night's Dream story, for those that like that sort of thing.)
We Never Talk About My Brother. The title story. Brothers get a real bad rap in the Bible, don't they? Kane and Abel decidedly don't get along. Joseph's brothers toss him in a well. The prodigal son's brother is portrayed as a jealous jerk. Even Aaron, Moses' brother, is characterized as someone who just couldn't live up to his brother's standard. In this story, we get a version of the other brother story: the older brother Jacob realises that his brother Eseu has mystical powers of life and death--and only uses them for death. What can a brother do? What does a brother have to do? Not the longest story by any means, I think this was the story that will stay with me the longest. I like the way it blends Biblical legend with a modern day family.
That's about half the stories in the book. The others are more or less of the same quality. I have to admit, there's no story here I'd single out as great, but each one is good enough to be worth reading. It's not the first book by Beagle I'd recommend--Try The Innkeeper's Song, or The Last Unicorn--but if you liked those, then this won't disappoint.

Later Days.

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