That's Not Fair
Remember that night in the tent when you were 5 and really, really had to wee but were afraid to walk across the campground and your big brother convinced you—whispering, snug in his sleeping bag alongside yours—to just go in the corner, right there near the maps and stuff? That's where the grown-ups go, he said, and you believed him.
Remember when your sister iced your birthday cake with Ajax?
It's payback time.
If authors, over the past decade, churned out increasingly intimate, pudenda-scented autobios and transparently personal fiction, then 2007 is when they ran out of stuff to say about themselves and started in on the next best thing: their brothers and sisters.
Siblings are as close as they can be to us without being us. They shared a womb. They were there when Dad got fired and Mom committed suicide. Summer reminds us of them because, when the heat rises, we think of home.
Siblings are our almost-us. Our other us. They can be better-looking, as in Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque (Knopf, $24.95). I "knew I was by far more intelligent than Yuriko . . . who had nothing going for her but her hauntingly beautiful face," the nameless and sociopathically bitter narrator says before heralding Yuriko's downfall with something like triumph.They can be older, as in Ehud Havazelet's novel Bearing the Body (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), due out in August, in which the dead brother's left-behind snapshots depict Jerry Garcia as "a remarkably thin and young-looking Jesse Jackson in an Afro," and the brother himself a Holocaust survivor's eldest son "holding a banner, walking behind two black men in army jackets and sunglasses, fists raised in salute."
Siblings are us, replicated: those strange creatures with whom one can "wake up to one's own double image, realizing you've just had the same dream," as Stacey Richter muses in the leading story of her collection of short stories, Twin Study(Counterpoint, $24). Its identical sisters—one married, one single, both liking the married one's husband's aftershave— switch lives secretly.
Siblings are us but unluckier, as in Baby Brother (G-Unit, $12), a collaborative novel by rapper 50 Cent and Noire (author of Candy Licker, Thug-a-Liciousand G-Spot). Seven sibs here include a gambler, a cop, a born-again ex-pimp, twin drug lords, a prison guard and a teen falsely accused of murder two days before he would have started Stanford on a full scholarship.
Sibling books lend themselves to two-mints-in-one whimsy. Natalie Kring and Shannon Kring Bir wrote Sister Salty, Sister Sweet: A Memoir of Sibling Rivalry (Running Press, $19.95) in alternating chapters.
In The Girls (Back Bay, $13.95), novelist Lori Lansens switches back and forth between the very different voices of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen.
Writing about your sibling is a goldmine. You've been researching this book all your life! Without even trying! There's no old microfiche to study or interviews to conduct. You already know whether or not your sibling liked peas and you easily imitate his or her vocal quirks. In Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister, a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives (Holt, $24), Steve Geng skewers the boyfriend of his sister, New Yorkerwriter Veronica Geng, as being "devoid of affect." A former professional thief, the author recounts the books Veronica read when she was a star student. He invokes the "terrible mixture of pride and longing I felt for her" during one teenage summer when they enjoyed "an almost unbearable closeness" and she was into Ayn Rand.
Writing about siblings lets you borrow their epiphanies, their highs and lows. In her memoir Relative Stranger(Canongate, $23), Mary Loudon tells us about her schizophrenic sister who was stealing cars or hallucinating being held captive in Tibet while the author was holed up with Saving Private Ryan and a box of Mystic Mints.
"I've not been good enough," Lavinia Dickinson sighs to the ghost of her famous sister in Paola Kaufmann's sensual The Sister (Overlook, $24.95), a novel aswirl with magnolia perfume, moist New England gingerbread and swishy white skirts, "and yet I know, I'm certain, that I've given my entire life to looking after you. . . . I had disguised myself as your keeper, your guardian, without ever asking myself why."
What real-life short-sheetings and favorites-playing parents fed Anna Maxted's A Tale of Two Sisters (Plume, $14)? In this latest novel from a chick-lit veteran, hot London lawyer Cassie disses plump, plain, pregnant writer sis Lizbet, then aims to redeem herself after the latter miscarries.
And surely someone suffered to inspire Da Chen's novel Brothers (Three Rivers, $14.95), in which abandoned bastard Shento seethes in a Chinese orphanage as luckily legitimate Tan is groomed to follow in the footsteps of their military-hero father. It all turns topsy-turvy amid the usual Maoist mayhem.
In contrast to the novels, some of the sibling memoirs spin subtler tangles of backstory and memory.
We feel as if we're eavesdropping on therapy sessions in The Water Will Hold You (Harmony, $22). Here, Lindsey Crittenden reminisces about choosing a name for the baby boy her parents adopted when she was 5, how little daredevil Blake became a junkie who flunked out of rehab, robbed their folks' house repeatedly, fathered and neglected a son, then took up tree trimming before being shot to death.
In Thick as Thieves, Geng might be transcribing his own 12-step mea culpas as he eulogizes the "girl who'd watched over me since the cradle . . . my hero, full of endearing contradictions—so fragile that she seemed to go through life teetering on the brink of tears." She cut him off forever when, HIV-positive, he went back on drugs once too often.
Crittenden's and Geng's memoirs are mirror images: One by a straight-edger straining to understand why the smart, sensitive sib with whom she shared Tang and secret nicknames became a heroin addict who stole. The other is by a heroin addict who stole.
That both authors, sick risk-taker and relative square, are the ones who survived is another of those stranger-than-fiction ironies. Blake Crittenden was arguably doomed. But Veronica Geng, after casting out Steve, died of a brain tumor. He found out while recovering from frostbite at a halfway house. Describing her wake, he drops Jamaica Kincaid and Philip Roth.
There is a pattern here. A lot of these siblings are dead. As recounted in her lyrical memoir Casting With a Fragile Thread (Picador, $15), Wendy Kann's beautiful sister, Lauren, experienced a car crash that in another country she might have survived but, in Zambia, did not. In If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation (Simon & Schuster, $25), Janine Latus details curly-haired thirtysomething Amy, who survived lymphoma only to fall in love with an ex-con who called her fat, refused to have sex with her, trolled for other chicks while using her AOL account and drained her credit cards before killing her. Now an anti-domestic-violence activist, Latus devotes most of the memoir to her own awful marriage, to the husband who coerced her into getting breast implants and strong-armed her into wearing thongs.
If the object of our study is deceased, we can conjecture and investigate, condemn and eulogize with less ethical muddle. Loudon is excellent at this in Relative Stranger, spinning a real-life mystery from her meetings with people who knew her long-estranged sister during the last dozen years of her life, an era the latter spent living as a man. "It's too bad if this annoys her," the author muses while wading through dead Catherine's flat, sorting through reefs of keepsakes. "I never disputed her right to disappear . . . but I never disputed my right to care about her."
Applying spotlights 'n' speculums to one's closest relatives is an almost certain way to stoke bad blood. Books have such a permanent quality, like slaps that keep on stinging. But hey, ain't no lawsuits in heaven or hell.
Although they can still tell Mom on you.
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