Bronte reads Brothers & Sisters by Charlotte Wood

Words by Bronte Coates

Published on February 26, 2012

Your sibling is your most severe judge, and your fiercest defender. You must always rescue them. They always abandon you. They abandoned you only once, and you will never forget it. They are a pain the arse. They save you. They will not be conquered. They never leave you alone.

You can never forgive them, and you will die wanting their forgiveness.

In this anthology Charlotte Wood has gathered together the voices of different writers to explore themes of jealousy, resentment, longing, betrayal, rivalry, and manipulation. Remind you of anyone?

Wood has a real talent for structure and form in her writing; her stories unfold easily across the pages, drawing the reader right up to her surprising, and often unsettling, conclusions. This collection is no exception and these stories of adult siblings share a strong thematic link, naturally creating an arc from beginning to end.

Virginia Peter’s, ‘About the others’ opens the collection with a young girl watching her mother chop vegetables in the kitchen while she listens to a story about her grandmother. The girl sees herself apart from her siblings, viewing them as a single entity – one her mother does not truly love. This feeling of separation between siblings is echoed throughout the other stories, at times forced upon the children unwillingly and at other times desired by them.

We never mutinied – we barely spoke. Instead, we hunkered down to sit out our childhood with cold-war enmity flowing between us like two opposing magnets.
(‘Beads and shells and teeth’, Cate Kennedy)

This separation is explored again in the closing story from Christos Tsiolkas where a brother attends his younger brother’s funeral and searches for a way to reconcile the past he shares with his brother with the way his brother’s friends view him.

While these echoes are satisfying for the most part, I did occasionally feel like I was reading variations on the same themes. Some stories feel like they were written for the theme, rather than occurring organically and this can be disconcerting – a reminder that we are reading a formed thing. I wondered, is it possible for a collection to be too cohesive? In many ways, Ashley Hay’s essay, ‘The Singular Animal’ about the concept of an ‘only child’ felt like a welcome interruption to the fiction.

One story that particularly struck a chord with me was Nam Le’s, ‘The Yarra’. A moody and evocative piece of writing, Le depicts an intensely violent and close relationship between two brother.

I bite the red cushion. I feel his ribs on my ribs. My body is an anvil and he’s beating something upon it, shaping it into a truer shape, seeking to prove it, the strength, the ductility the temper of his love.

As a whole, the stories are very dark in tone, revealing and unsentimental. These may not be the same stories you share with your brothers and sisters but I’m sure you will be both surprised and unsettled by the echoes you do discover to your own experiences.