My Brother by Karin Smirnoff

My Brother is a Swedish-translation debut novel that’s going to divide opinions both for its difficult subject matter and the distinctive writing style.  Due for UK release on 4th March, it’s already making ripples in the book world, and will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Scandi-noir dramas.

Secrets and lies grow thick and tall like tree trunks … has its own hard, coarse beauty.’

what it says on the cover …

Jana is returning to see her twin brother Bror, still living in the small family farmhouse in the rural north of Sweden. It’s decrepit and crumbling, and Bror is determinedly drinking himself to an early grave. They’re both damaged by horrific childhood experiences, buried deep in the past, but Jana cannot keep running.

Alive with the brutality and beauty of the landscape, My Brother is a novel steeped in darkness and violence – about abuse, love, complicity, and coming to terms with the past. It’s the story of a homecoming without a home: a story of forgiveness.

PUBLISHED: 4th March 2021
SHELF: literary fiction | suspense
AUTHOR: Karin Smirnoff
TRANSLATOR: Anna Paterson
PUBLISHER: Pushkin Press
FORMATS: Paperback | Kindle

‘We crawled into my bed put out the light and told each other about our real parents who had lost us and were still trying to find us. They lived somewhere exciting like ume or maybe even stockholm. In one of the rooms in their house they kept the unopened christmas and birthday presents from all the years we had been kippos. We were waiting for a miracle.’

my review

Before I step in to my review I want to bring to your attention that My Brother is a book full of difficult themes that won’t be to every reader’s taste.  The crux of the story is one of child abuse, and the struggle of Jana and her twin brother Bror to rebuild their lives many years later.  Domestic abuse, alcoholism, and animal abuse/hunting also feature quite strongly.  It’s not an easy read, but it’s deeply affecting and incredibly well told, so if you like your books to move you emotionally then this one deserves a place on your reading list.

My Brother opens on a brutally cold, blizzard scene.  A prefect book choice, if I may say so, for the days that Storm Darcy, and the return of beast from the east sent me donning a second pair of chunky socks and downing a twenty second hot cuppa! Jana is returning to her family home having spent years deliberately avoiding the memories of her dreadful childhood here. Jana’s identical twin brother, Bror, suffered horrific abuse at the hands of their father too, but unlike his sister he’s imprisoned by the mental and physical scars, unable to walk away but seeking his escape through alcohol.  

Narrated by Jana, the book straddles two timelines; the present day, and flashbacks to some of the most indelible moments of the twins’ childhood.  These flashbacks pop up throughout the book, rather than in alternating chapters of their own. Even though Jana protects the reader from the worst details of the atrocities, she reveals enough to challenge the boundaries of my (dis)comfort zones.  There’s no way Jana or Bror could come through their experiences unaffected, and the book follows Jana’s tentative steps as she tries to carve out what she calls ‘an ordinary, unremarkable life’ for herself.  Where Jana is private and self-contained, Bror is lashing out against his own emotional damage with his heart on his sleeve and a bottle in his hand.  Unlike Jana, however, Bror has found a degree of peace with their mother despite her complicity in the abuse; a perspective I initially struggled to understand.   

For all its distressing themes, there are many chinks of hope scattered throughout the book; I was hugely grateful for them and the breathing space they afforded me.  It’s an unforgettable story of second chances, salvation and forgiveness.  It’s a potent, unabashed, and acutely human story about the energy of one person’s love for another, and the redemption that carries.  At several points in the book, the author conveys the security and peace Jana finds when John holds her in his arms, and this happens again later in the book for Bror in Angelika’s arms.  As a firm believer in the humble hug, these occurrences stood out to me as symbols of hope for both Jana and Bror.

Jana is a complex character; one who’s difficult to get to know.  Unsurprisingly, she’s detached and profoundly private, and yet her strength of character and capacity for tenderness shine through.  I found her generosity of spirit heartwarming, particularly as she battled to save Bror from following in their father’s alcoholic footsteps. But alive as she is to the dangers of her past, she finds herself inexorably drawn back into a relationship with John that’s fraught with troubles and dangers of its own. Of all the characters, Jana dominated my attention as I vacillated between applauding her desire to make peace with her past and despising some of her opinions.

The author creates a vivid, beautiful setting for My Brother.  As the seasons change so too does the mood, but the majority of the story is set against the merciless cold, with thigh-deep snow, bitterly cruel winds, bleak landscapes, and desolate pine forests.  The isolation of Jana and Bror’s farmstead seeps into the readers bones, but rather than feeling lonely it offers the siblings a degree of privacy from the claustrophobic watchfulness that seems to pervade the wider community.  And it’s a community that’s inhabited by some decidedly strange characters!

My Brother is written in a distinctive style, and shimmers with the understated restraint that’s a hallmark of the most successful Scandi-noir tv dramas.  For me, the writing style is the defining beauty of the book.  Sentences are short, yet the brevity is dense with unspoken depth.  Its very quietude is intense and all-consuming, belying the warm intimacy and the burden of history between the characters. It left me no choice but to weave my own interpretation and imagination into the story on the pages.  There was, however, one distinctive idiosyncrasy that I initially struggled with; the scant punctuation.  At first I attributed the lack of commas and non-existent speech marks to my copy being an uncorrected proof, and then I wondered if it might have been a characteristic of the translation from its original Swedish text.  But on refection I believe this is an active decision by the author.  Yes, it slowed my reading pace, but at the same time it also presented itself as a gift; allowing me the time and space to indulge my genuine admiration of this distinctive, quirky style.

I’ve struggled with my rating for this book.  Whilst I adored the stylish writing, and admired the unflinchingly frank story, it was hard work emotionally.  Too hard.  I devoured the scenery and the settings, but I baulked at the cruelty.  This wont’t be every reader’s reaction, but for me it was a step too far into themes that I don’t usually seek out in my books.  Your experience with and reaction to My Brother with be deeply personal, but to not read it would be missing out on a memorable and laudable writing talent.

my rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thank you to the publishers,Pushkin Press and Poppy Stimpson for sending me an early proof copy of My Brother in return for an honest review.

karin smirnoff

Karin Smirnoff lives in Piteå in Sweden. She worked as a journalist before quitting her job to buy a wood factory. After a couple of years she longed to get back to writing and wrote her debut novel: My Brother.

#MyBrother | @PushkinPress
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5 thoughts on “My Brother by Karin Smirnoff

    1. Thanks Stephen!! It bothered me too at first as it forced me to really concentrate on the flow of the story … but I got used to it, and I actually think it was a really clever tactic. It doesn’t give you any other option than to completely immerse yourself

      Liked by 1 person

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