REVIEW by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

NWR Issue r26

No Good Brother

by Tyler Keevil

The opening paragraph of Tyler Keevil’s third novel draws the reader in immediately:

The end of the story is pretty well known, since people wound up getting killed and the trials were in the news. My brother Jake was portrayed in a lot of different ways…. But none of those versions is true, or entirely true. I intend to tell it straight and lay out how it all happened, and how I became involved.

So, we know something of the ending before we’ve heard the beginning, and can we trust Jake’s brother to be a reliable narrator of events?

Keevil’s first two novels, [gwales: 9781906998103::Fireball] and The Drive, were both nominated for Wales Book of the Year and both received the Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize. It will be fascinating to see whether No Good Brother secures him a hat-trick. It’s certainly as un-put-downable as the others, again with plenty of action underpinned by contemplation of serious things such as grief, loyalty and the contradictions we harbour in our multiple selves. And again we have two main male characters, this time the charming ex-con Jake and his apparently more sensitive and sensible older brother, Tim. However, where [gwales: 9781906998103::Fireball] and The Drive were takes on the classic coming-of-age and road-trip genres respectively, No Good Brother is harder to classify, with Google listing it as humour, mystery, psychological fiction, Western fiction and domestic fiction, just for starters.

We first meet Tim on board the Western Lady at the end of the herring-fishing season. He’s been working as a deckhand for Albert and his wife Evelyn for five years and is clearly seen as part of the family, especially as there is a potential love interest between him and their daughter, Tracy. Tim has duly been invited to spend a week’s holiday with them at their cabin in Squamish, an invitation he seems about to accept when Jake rolls up after a long absence. The proverbial bad penny. Jake has spent time in jail and now has to do a favour for gangster bosses, Mark and Patrick Delaney, who have ensured his safety while inside. He has to make a delivery for them and needs a helping hand. Initially, Tim refuses, but Jake is persuasive and knows just how to manipulate his big-hearted brother.

Keevil quickly creates a sense of the strong bond between the two young men, of Tim’s loyalty and sense of responsibility, and of a shared naivety: ‘The truth is, my loyalty to my brother was so strong that I would have gone along with pretty much any plan, no matter how dumb or foolhardy or crazy, no matter what.’ And boy, it’s a ramshackle scheme that gets crazier by the minute. The delivery is not of money or drugs or anything so simple and inert; it is of a racehorse – not the easiest of items to smuggle across the US border, especially if your only experience of horses is of mucking out stables and refilling water buckets. I should perhaps here put out a warning to readers who know about horses, whose patience and credulity are going to be challenged more than most: you will just have to turn a blind eye and concentrate on enjoying the antics.

The absurd is very much at play here, and there are times when No Good Brother reads as a comic caper verging on the Laurel and Hardy. I found myself occasionally holding my breath, waiting for the next insane decision or incredible twist of fate. But Keevil carries it off with his brilliant pacing, building a sense of tension and foreboding, and then letting us off the hook. It’s difficult to know, though, whether this is a strength or a weakness here. I sometimes felt the novel wasn’t quite sure of its identity, which would perhaps explain its multiple category listing with Google. Sometimes it is pure comedy, but there is also the dark, thriller element of gangster violence and addiction, the age-old psychological conflict of sibling loyalty and rivalry and, behind it all, the story of a tragic death and its enduring impact.

Tim and Jake’s older sister, Sandy, died in a car accident ten years ago. It was she who had held the family together after their father died, supporting their mother and becoming a second mother to the two boys, helping them to keep on track. Her death devastates them all. Tim takes off to plant trees in the wilderness, Jake goes to the bad, and their mother quietly loses part of her mind: ‘the perennial nature of our grief, which did not dwindle or fade with time but instead seemed to grow and grow, relentless as ivy, slowly overwhelming and stifling us.’ This is the story that glimmers hauntingly beneath the surface.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a writer and translator. Her most recent short story is included in Wandrian (Aberystwyth University MA Anthology 2018), sold in aid of MIND Aberystwyth.

No Good Brother is out in paperback in January.]

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previous review: The Golden Orphans
next review: Arrest Me, for I Have Run Away


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