The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen

Boxing. The noble art of self-defense.

In an effort to be less defenseless and partly because my university required physical education to graduate, I took years of boxing and kickboxing in college. My training wasn’t quite as effective as one would hope, as I still feel too ridiculous for anyone aside from my trainer to watch me. My college boyfriend offered to pay an ungodly sum of money (or it seemed so at the time) to be allowed to watch. I declined. Let’s hope, for the sake of survival, that should I ever be attacked I am not too embarrassed to defend myself.

The Half Brother

If you read Tuesday’s list, you know I enjoy a good bout of fictional boxing (and now you know why). I recently finished The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen and it’s one of the best books I’ve read (ever.). I don’t speak Norwegian (the closest I get is limited Swedish and that’s mostly the impolite words, oddly, the same is true about my German as well), but The Half Brother makes me wish I did. I enjoy translated fiction, but I am always curious how it would be in its original language. Everything loses a bit of something in translation.

The Half Brother is a huge, both figuratively and literally, story that focuses on the lives of an nontraditional family. It is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen and John Irving, at times oddly comedic and jarringly intimate.  It defies my limited descriptive abilities, so I am borrowing from Goodreads (though, if you ask me, their description is rather lacking too).

The Half Brother traces four generations of a family marked by the untimely birth of Fred, a misfit and boxer conceived during a devastating rape who forges an unusual friendship with his younger half-brother, Barnum.

The novel tells the story of a family of women living in Oslo. Vera, the youngest, is brutally raped on VE Day and the result is Fred. Years later, she marries a man she never even knows and Barnum is born. They anchor the story; the presence of men is ethereal and mysterious at best (their ability to come and go is in direct contrast to the women’s steadfastness). Despite this, a large focus of the novel is Barnum. Although his world is limited, both physically (he’s as short and squat and Fred is tall and this) and globally (Fred wishes to protect him from everything), he still ends up a celebrated screen writer with a penchant for alcohol.

It’s not what you see that matters most, but rather what you think you see.

The novel is very much about love and the complications both its presence and absence causes. The complex relationships are set against the backdrop of Oslo (used much like Irving uses Vienna) and boxing. Barnum’s world is shaped by both the presence and persistence of Fred and, conversely, its emptiness in his absence. It deftly explores relationships – the familial, fraternal, and the romantic, spanning the decades after World War II. The characters are finely wrought, yet elusive and mysterious. This book is not easy, it is a challenging examination of the intricacies of family (and probably the best piece of boxing fiction I have ever read). Oddly enough, the more I like a novel, the harder it is for me to talk about it, as is the case here. So we’ll simply leave it at this: go read the book if you haven’t already. 5/5. Translated from Norwegian by Kenneth Steven.

And no worries if you are not a boxer, this is still genuinely great fiction. Also, if you are concerned about self-defense (as I am), this book would be an excellent investment – you can read it and, at nearly 700 pages, use it as a sizable weapon.

Sun Dried Tomato

As far as I can tell, the characters of the novel survive on the consumption of alcohol. I am recommending something with a bit more substance (Sun-Dried Tomato and Red Pepper Pesto Pasta).

For the curious, in 2013 there have been four 5/5 books: Donnybrook, Double Feature, NOS4A2, and The Half Brother. 50% of the novelists listed are related.


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