The Night Brother by Rosie Garland
Publication date: 01 June 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length*: 6 hours 17 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
My rating: 3 out of 5
From the author of The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen comes a dazzling and provocative new novel of adventure, mystery and belonging. The Night Brother shifts tantalisingly between day and night, exploring questions of identity, sexual equality and how well we know ourselves. Perfect for fans of Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Erin Morgenstern.
Rich are the delights of late nineteenth-century Manchester for young siblings Edie and Gnome. They bicker, banter, shout and scream their way through the city’s streets, embracing its charms and dangers. But as the pair mature, it is Gnome who revels in the night-time, while Edie is confined to the day. She wakes exhausted each morning, unable to quell a sickening sense of unease, and confused at living a half-life.
Reaching the cusp of adulthood, Edie’s confusion turns to resentment and she is determined to distance herself from Gnome once and for all. But can she ever be free from someone who knows her better than she knows herself?
Exploring the furthest limits of sexual and gender fluidity, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark.
When I started reading this book, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. The language constantly nagged at me, and it took me some time to work out why it felt familiar even as it felt strange: it’s almost the language of fairytales. Until the mention of the Suffragette movement, I couldn’t place the time that the story takes place in and, because of the fairytale feel that comes from the style of language, I wasn’t sure that the story is set in a ‘real’ historical time. The geographical setting is real, and I found myself feeling a connection with the book as parts of Manchester that I know and love (from the couple of years I spent living there) were named and described as their Victorian versions.
It is a striking book: while it is historical fiction, it deals with extremely contemporary themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. The story skilfully questions what it is that defines us as individuals to others, and to ourselves. Through the struggles of Gnome and Edie, it shows how gender and sexuality cannot be defined as binary options, but rather two points on an analogue scale which a person can appear anywhere on. It cleverly illustrates how when the different facets of our personalities are forced to fit into socially acceptable boxes, and we are compelled to fit ourselves in them, it is harmful. We are better off accepting our different sides, seeking to find a way to live with our contradictions peacefully. If we can only be brave enough to share the fullness of the people we truly are with another whom we can trust, fear can be replaced with acceptance.
Rosie Garland’s approach to these questions of gender, sexuality, and identity is inventive and original. Rather than tackle these questions through Sci-Fi or YA fiction (which seem the most obvious genres for these themes), she has skilfully used Historical Fiction to demonstrate that these themes and philosophical questions that we think of as modern concerns are timeless – they have been around for as long as the concept of ‘socially acceptable’ has existed.
The historical setting of the story takes a backseat to the story itself, so if you’re after a historical novel that will closely follow renowned events, or teach you something about events during the Victorian era, you might not get what you are after. You will get a book which is easy and enjoyable to read, with an original plot, and an unexpected outcome. A good book for the daily commute or winding down before bed, it’ll take you out of your own world for a bit and dump you, unapologetically, into the middle of possibly the most dysfunctional family you can imagine.
Thank you to The Borough Press and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.