#A hard-hitting novel, beautifully written and observed, and a lesson in narrative#
I bring you another book by an author whose very special book of short stories, Backstories, I featured recently. This one is a novel, and it is quite a novel.
The Silent Brother by Simon Van der Velde
When his beloved little brother is stolen away, five-year-old Tommy Farrier is left alone with his alcoholic mam, his violent step-dad and his guilt. Too young to understand what has really happened, Tommy is sure of only one thing. He is to blame.
Tommy tries to be good, to live-up to his brother’s increasingly hazy memory, but trapped in a world of shame and degradation he grows up with just two options; poverty or crime. And crime pays.
Or so he thinks.
A teenage drug-dealer for the vicious Burns gang, Tommy’s life is headed for disaster, until, in the place he least expects, Tommy sees a familiar face…
And then things get a whole lot worse
About The Author
Simon Van der Velde was born and educated in Newcastle upon Tyne where he trained and practiced as a lawyer. Writing, however, was always the real passion, and Simon has now left the legal profession in order to concentrate on his writing.
Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) at University of Northumbria in 2011, Simon’s work has won and been short-listed for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal, The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Short Story Prize, The Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition.
Simon is the founder and chair of Gosforth Writers Group and author of the widely acclaimed, Amazon bestseller, Backstories, ‘the stand-out most original book of the year’ in 2021. His literary crime novel, The Silent Brother is published on 16th June, 2022 by Northodox Press. Simon is
currently working on both Backstories II and his follow-up crime novel, Dogwood.
Having travelled throughout Europe and South America, Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne with his wife, labradoodle and two tyrannical children.
I read and reviewed Simon Van der Velde’s book Backstories, which was a great success with many other members of Rosie’s Book Review Team as well; I expressed my interest in reading the second volume of that book (due in autumn 2022), and I ended up exchanging several messages with the author. He told me he had finished a novel and asked me if I’d be interested in reading it, although it was quite different to Backstories. When he told me what it was about, I could not resist, and I thank the author for providing me with an early ARC copy of The Silent Brother, which I freely chose to review.
The author, of course, was right. This novel is pretty different from Backstories, although it retains some of its best qualities and goes further still, building up the setting and, especially, the characters, creating fully-fledged individuals and a universe that merges realistic details with fictional but truly believable and understandable situations. One wouldn’t be surprised to read some of the episodes featured in the novel in a local (or national) newspaper, and, unfortunately, many will be quite familiar, especially to UK readers. (Not that similar stories don’t happen in other places, but one of the beauties of the novel is in the detail, and the author explains where the story comes from and how and why it was born, in his note Victims or Perpetrators? The Inspiration Behind The Silent Brother). I suspect that for many people in the West, the idea of poverty wouldn’t include their neighbours or people living just a few streets away from them, but there are many who are born into families with little to no resources and for whom “dysfunctional” is perhaps an understatement in our own countries and cities.
Tommy, the protagonist of the novel, is one of those people. Born into a family that is far from conventional (or happy), he lives a very traumatic event when he is very young, and he blames himself for what happened and feels guilty ever since. This is only the first of many traumas he manages to survive, but not unscathed, and it is easy to understand why and how he ends up becoming a criminal. There is never much of a reprieve for Tommy, though, and every time things seem to be going right for him, something happens and reality comes crashing down on him. But, one of the qualities that will endear him to most readers is that he never gives up. His decisions might get him (and others) into trouble quite often, but he is loyal to his friends (in his own way), and he is a better judge of character than he gives himself credit for.
The story is told in the first-person from Tommy’s point of view, and although he is not always the most reliable of narrators (Personally, I think he knows when to stop telling a story and when to edit out some things. He is clearly in control of the narrative), his pretty unique point of view and his inside knowledge serve the reader well, because he is insightful enough to pick up on clues and events that are important even before he knows why, and although he hides some things even from himself, he evolves and has learned to face the truth by the end of the novel.
I have talked about Tommy, and, as I have mentioned before, I think the characters are all very well written, recognisable, and memorable. There are truly bad baddies; some that fall in the grey area (most of the rest); some likeable but puzzling and ambiguous (sometimes, perhaps, because we see them through Tommy’s eyes, and his emotions and feelings toward them change); and some that we can’t help but feel sorry for. Tommy sometimes annoyed me, but he also intrigued me, grabbed my attention, and wouldn’t let go, and I loved Annie from the very first. She is a wonderful character, despite (or perhaps because of) the terrible circumstances she finds herself in, and she is full of ambiguities, as real people are.
Beyond the social commentary (which makes the book well-worth a read already), particularly aimed at the changes many cities in the North of the UK went through in the final decades of the XX century (in this case, the Northeast, especially Newcastle and Sunderland), we have many themes that are explored in the novel: single parenthood, the underclasses, alcohol and drug abuse, abusive relationships including domestic violence, the role of social services, bullying, gang crime and violence, drug dealing, family relationships, regret, guilt, trauma, self-harm, PTSD, the self-expressive and healing power of art, different kinds of friendship, the nature of storytelling and narratives, and above all, this is a story about love: fraternal love, family love, and also romantic love, against all odds.
The writing is wonderful, though harsh at times, of course. The author has a talent for descriptions, and I don’t mean only physical descriptions —which he does well enough— but he can make us see a person, a place, and feel as if we were living a moment, by focusing on the small details: a noise, a touch, a gesture… He recreates the atmosphere of the city, the pubs, the clubs, the houses, the social services office… And he immerses us inside the head of the main character, getting us to share his thoughts and his experiences. It can be a pretty uncomfortable place to be in, but, somehow, you don’t want to leave until you’ve seen the whole thing through. The story is told (mostly) chronologically, although at times there are intrusive memories and thoughts that disrupt the character’s perspective, sending him (and us) back to particular events.
Rather than sharing my favourite quotes (and there are many I highlighted), I include an excerpt at the end, chosen by the author.
As you can imagine from the list of themes, the book is tough and pulls no punches. This isn’t a look at life through rose-tinted glasses, so people who find bad language, violence, and any (or all) of the topics mentioned upsetting, should be wary of the contents. Despite all that, though, this is a very hopeful book, and I loved the slightly bittersweet ending. I won’t give too many details, because I don’t want to spoil it for readers, and some things aren’t revealed until the very end and might come as a surprise, but let’s say that I was satisfied with the fate of most of the characters, and I hope most readers will be as well.
I recommend this novel to those who already know the author (I’m sure they’ll love it as well) and to those who don’t but appreciate realistic and hard-hitting stories, beautifully written, full of heart, with social consciousness, especially those set in the contemporary UK (particularly the North of England). It does not pull any punches, so people worried about certain types of content (violence, substance use, abuse…) should be warned, but otherwise, this is a novel whose characters will stay with the reader, and one that will make us face some uncomfortable truths as well. The author has more novels coming out soon, so make sure not to miss any. I won’t.
Excerpts from The Silent Brother
‘They’re coming for you,’ Mam said
That’s how it all got started…cos of me being a coward
Bells, it says, but it doesn’t ring, it crashes
‘Do as your told and there’s five grand in it for you. Or you can piss about and get another kicking’
Back in Walker …with the police camera that never works and the half bricks lying in the road, and all those mean-eyed bastards sitting on their front steps, getting pissed, shouting the odds at anyone who looks at them.
‘All I want is a fair cut.’ ‘You want your cut? I swear, you f*ck me about and you’ll get your f*cking cut’
I’ve got a good feeling about this. I’ve got a good feeling about everything. So long as I keep the music playing and the money coming, so long as I don’t go back down Belmont Street, so long as I keep on flying and never look down.
Her arms pull me closer. Her body draws me deeper. I don’t know where I end, where she begins.
The place is normally lit in this pink-ish dusk with silk sheets hanging off the balcony rail, so it looks like the sort of boozer
Aladdin might’ve bought it after he found his genie. But Aladdin didn’t buy it. Eddie Burns did. That’s why we’re sitting here, shitting ourselves, waiting to see exactly how pissed off Eddie’s going to be.
Thanks to Rosie and the members of her team for introducing me to this author, thanks to the author for the book, and thanks to all of you for reading, for your support, for sharing with all who might be interested, and remember to keep smiling and being your wonderful selves. ♥