My Brother Jack

My Brother Jack, George Johnston, 1964

  • Australia, #13
  • Bought from Alibris for $3.00
  • Read October 2014
  • Rating: 4.5/5
  • Recommended for: Fans of Graham Greene and other mid-century realists

This one is a slow starter, but if you can get past the somewhat tedious childhood era, it just gets better and better. It is heartbreaking without being sentimental, and cynical without being heartless. I gave it five stars on goodreads, but I’m downgrading it to four and a half now; it hasn’t stayed with me the way Voss has, and I like to save my five-star rating for books that really blew me away. It’s probably all quibbling over very minor details (I mean, do you really care if it’s four and a half or five stars? Either way it’s a good book and I liked it), but what the hell. Some people collect stamps or like to keep their houses free of dust. For me, it’s very important that I be precise in my book ratings.

Anyway…the blurb describes the story as “explor[ing]…two Australian myths–that of the man who loses his soul as he gains worldly success, and that of the tough, honest, Aussie battler.” But I think it’s more subtle than that. The real tragedy of this story is how the narrator, Davy, buys into those myths and applies them to himself and his brother Jack. In casting himself as the soulless success story, he magnifies his own flaws and deliberately alienates himself from everything familiar and everyone who loves him. In idealizing his brother Jack as the so-called “battler”, he blinds himself to Jack’s deep flaws and the ways in which Jack has failed him as a brother. Davy constantly maligns his own motives, and sees sadness and decline where others see love and joy. It is a beautiful, deftly executed, and subtly wrought work and I think the reader who manages to stick it out through a few less-than-gripping opening chapters will be richly rewarded in the end.

California 2005
California 2005
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