Home > Books > We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Ants, wasps and bees are social insects. They live harmoniously in their colonies and, in their insect way (not meaning to be too patronising here) work for the common good, defending their own, and solving all the problems that come their way as best they can. Not, of course, that I envy insects. But they are an interesting point of contrast to us humans. We seem to have great difficulty in all our relationships, work only when we must, and conspicuously fail to solve most of our problems. It seems we pay a high price for what we call “intelligence”. Look at how successful insects have been. They have colonised most of the planet without feeling the need to develop massive brain power. Why? Because they avoid the bear pit of emotions that bedevils our lives. Just think of all the problems caused by love and hate, fear and anger. Our lack of trust fuels the fear. We seem doomed to disappointment with ourselves and others. All of which brings me to We Never Talk About My Brother.

This is another collection from Tachyon Publications which, over some fifteen years, has been slowly but steadily building itself into one of the better small presses. It’s always pleasing when a delicate flower grows sturdy and diversifies from its initial one-trick pony status as Peter S. Beagle’s publisher*. As I write this, we have good news for this latest collaboration between writer and publisher: “By Moonlight” won the Locus Award for the Best Novelette. The collection itself is shortlisted for an award of Best Collection in the World Fantasy Awards for 2010. I am coming to this book late in the day, playing catch-up.

Fortunately for me as a reviewer, three of the stories have already been collected in Strange Roads. Click through for the missing reviews. This thins down the wordage and gives me a chance to focus on the main theme to these stories which is easily stated: the strengths and weakness of the human heart.

Brothers! Life would be so easy if they could just get along. But there’s always this competition based on birth order. Except. . . Well, sometimes the older is the wiser and chooses to step back and avoid confrontation. Not because he fears his younger brother — who knows how much bigger and stronger the older may be — but because he has a live-and-let-live approach to life. Except. . . Well, there may come a time when the older can no longer look the other way given the excesses of the younger. If he was to step out of the shadows. . . Well, if he did and no matter what the result, “We (the family would) Never Talk About [My] the fight between the Brother(s)”. It would be just too painful to recall.

“The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is an elegiac lament on the willingness of people to allow envy to colour their relationships. What makes this story such an achingly beautiful tragedy is the unselfish love that is lost. If people could only see what value they have in their lives and be satisfied with it, they could be happy and contented. But frustration and ambition changes people. Imagine a mighty Lord who, unusually for his culture, is prepared to accept people for what they are and reward them on their merits. He has broken convention by allowing a commoner to enter his household as a huntsman. Once this door is open, the simple peasant begins to lose his innocence. The question of his status haunts him. Where does he fit in? What are his just deserts? In his village, such questions would never have troubled his mind. But in a highly political court and a stratified class system, they are unavoidable. People change through force of circumstances. It may be just in external appearance as they adapt to their new environments. More alarmingly, the changes may be in their hearts. Perhaps there is a monster lurking inside all of us, just waiting for the chance to show itself.

“The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” also deals with a change in the heart as Mr. Moscowitz slowly loses his identity as an American and becomes a French archetype. In fact, so perfect is his transformation that he becomes the standard by which Frenchness is to be measured. This is all well and good, but what is he supposed to do when, having relocated to France, he finds they are just, well, not French enough? If this is a coming-of-nationality story, “The Stickball Witch” is a delightful coming-of-age story. Ah those happy days when traffic was so infrequent we could all play safely in the streets. Like Beagle, I miss the communal lives we led as children. This is not to say parents were any less mindful or caring. But, when daylight came during school holidays, the streets were our home. In my town, the problems came from a rival group of children (I hesitate to use the word “gang” because that has acquired rather more dark overtones). We agreed to disagree and divided the town into mutual no-go areas. Beagle’s witch turns out to have a rather more impish sense of humour, but she also guards her territory.

“By Moonlight” explores the nature of love a man may have. One may find God but then be seduced. Another may never know religion but be all too familiar with the betrayals of women. If two such men were to meet, they would have interesting things to say to each other. It might be world-weary. After all, trust is one of the first things lost when relationships are broken. But in reality, men are stronger creatures. They may be driven on by the obsession they can recapture what has been taken from them. They may be running from a world that never seems to appreciate them except for the reward money to be earned by turning them in. So husbands may betray the lovers taken by their wives. Mistresses may sell their lovers to the law enforcement agencies. It’s all the same really. No matter which side of the fence you may think you are on. “The Unicorn Tapestries” is also about betrayal except. . . Can you ever really capture a dream?

Finally in “Chandail” we look into the secret recesses of a woman’s mind. How should she feel when her family sold her into slavery? What would she say if she had the chance to talk with the one who betrayed her? There are answers offered here as the woman enters into a strange communion with a semi-telepathic sea creature. In making the physical attempt to save the creature, she overcomes her anger and fear. The question is whether such conquests mean love has a chance to grow again.

This collection deserves to win the “Best” award. Reading anthologies, it’s always a delight to come across a new story by Beagle. Being able to walk through the pages of this collection with a man so suffused with humanity is a privilege and a delight. If you have not already discovered Beagle, you should buy this collection as a first introduction.

* As further examples of the symbiotic relationship between authors and small press publishers, consider F. Paul Wilson and Gauntlet Press and Joe R. Lansdale and Subterranean Press.

As an added note, this collection was shortlisted in the category of Best Collection for the World Fantasy Award 2010 but, sadly, did not win.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and Strange Roads.

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