Brother is a difficult novel to review as thanks to some pretty unpleasant and nasty sections, which are outside of my regular reading habits, however, if you enjoy extreme horror you may well enjoy this unsettling and unforgiving novel. Ironically, when I started it I thought it was a YA novel! The main character was 19 years old, so I was lulled into a false sense of security and when the first victim is tortured and killed very slowly in the first chapter the prospect of a YA read quickly evaporated.
The plot is pretty straight forward, a highly dysfunctional and downright evil family who live in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia kidnap, torture and murder young women. as well as other stuff that I’m not going to go into, I’ll just leave that to your imagination.
The plot offers nothing new, except that it is seen from the point of view of the killers rather than the victims. Straight away you would be right in thinking of films like Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn and anything based on Ed Gein or other serial killers. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Michael, a 19-year-old who is the outsider in the family. He partakes in the killing, but doesn’t enjoy it, and believes he has no choice. But also hates himself as a small part of him is aroused by the young women being killed. Whether he has any choice is one of the questions posed in this easy to read, but challenging novel.
The mother “Momma” is the ringleader and takes particular pleasure in the killing and has her favourite types, sending out Michael and his elder brother Ray to stalk and scope possible targets. They are seemingly careful not to kidnap anyone who will be missed. They don’t quite use a “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” blueprint. And despite beign in the murdering game for years, I did wonder why the police never came knocking? The deaths and prolonged and I found them pretty hard to stomach and if this were a film would be heading into torture porn territory. In fact, the author mentions in her end note that the book was inspired more than anything by the film “Chained” which she felt was underrated. I wasn’t surprised when I read this, as I thought the plot of this novel belonged more on the screen rather than the page. Certainly, the repeated violence on young women is certainly something you’re more likely to see on screen rather than in a book.
Most of the novel is seen from Michael’s point of view and this we find out about the beatings, possible incest, nobody can read properly, the isolation and the fact that he rarely does very simple stuff like go to McDonalds. He also has a sister who has never been allowed to leave the house and whose only contact with the outside world is music and their relationship is key to the novel. Momma and his Dad “Wade” treat him horribly, and you find out why through the second strand of the story which is told by Ray. Ray likes to be called “Rebel” and is a borderline alcoholic and enjoys his killing, but can be charming when he wishes to be. He is also horrible to Michael and much of the story centres on the messed up relationship between the two brothers. Ray has dominated Michael his entire life and Michael knows nothing else until he meets a girl in a record-shop and begins to dream of a life beyond the family.
There is nothing to explain why the family are serial killers, and although the parents are vile they’re not really explored in any depth. I found myself picking holes in the plot. Nobody went to school, throw child kidnapping into the mix, all the shoplifting and stealing liquor, and surely the red flags would start being flagged? Michael seems so cut-off from reality, is so gullible, has ‘suspect’ written all over him. Does the term ‘Hillbilly Horror’ exist? Is not, then this book certainly fits the bill. For me the reason it was so unsettling was because the violence and psychological aspects of it was so realistic. I recently finished reading Simon Bestwick’s brilliant apocalyptic horror novel “Hell’s Ditch” which was a very violent book, but because it lived in the realms of the supernatural did not unsettle me anywhere near as much as “Brother” did. I guess much of it depends on which brand of horror you like and if you dig nihilistic realistic and violent thrillers chances are you’ll enjoy this novel. Plot-wise I saw most of the twists coming and sure you have your sympathies for Michael and his nightmare life, but I for one was pleased to leave him behind. Ania Ahlborn isn’t going to win any prizes from the West Virginian Tourist Board!