One Brother Shy

by Terry Fallis

One Brother Shy is narrated by Alex MacAskill, an Ottawa developer working on the latest and greatest face-recognition software. He takes care of his ailing mother and, because of a mysterious, traumatic event in his past, he suffers from an almost debilitating shyness, so bad he can barely look coworkers in the eye when he engages in bare-minimum social interaction with them. In settling his mother’s affairs and sorting through her possessions after her passing, Alex finds a photo of a man holding him as a baby, along with an identical child. With nothing but this photo to go on, he sets out on a journey to discover the family he never knew he had.

One Brother Shy confuses me, just because my experience with it was thoroughly negative, but, from the vast majority of ratings and reviews I’ve seen of the book, it’s hugely popular. This makes me think I missed something in my reading, but I struggle to understand what it could be. (I also understand that offering criticism without being cruel in such a situation will also be a struggle, but I’ll do the best I can.) Firstly, the prose is flat and repetitive throughout the story. This could potentially be explained as an author attempting to channel a socially inept and hesitant protagonist trying to tell this story, but, even if done with the best of intentions, it doesn’t make the prose any better at the end of the exercise. This also hurts the ability of the story to provoke an emotional response, because it has less to do with exactly what happens plot-wise, and more to do with how the reader experiences the characters leading up to the emotional moment and how the author handles description and imagery within the moment to guide the reader to the intended response. (Good examples in my more recent reading that initially come to mind showcasing how a writer can control this to great effect are Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse.)

Another issue arises when Fallis attempts to build to his big reveal. Here, we learn right off the get-go that so many of Alex’s problems stem back to this single, traumatic experience, but we only don’t find out more about it because our narrator repeatedly refuses to talk about it when it’s brought up in conversation, opening up only when he feels ready. (We also get a short line related to the event in question at the beginning of each chapter, spoiler warning.) By overtly concealing the information, it’s not possible to either ramp up suspense by slowly handing out hints or to make the reveal arise in a way that feels organic, that makes the story feel more complete. This creates a dynamic between reader and narrator/author where it’s easy for the reader to feel cheated. (Contrast this to Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, where we’re repeatedly given hints that something’s off with either the narrator’s recollections or the people around him, where the surprise feels significant partly because the narrator only realizes it when the reader does instead of knowing it all along and hiding it from us.)

As well, characterization is problematic in One Brother Shy. We frequently learn about a character trait right when it becomes important to the discussion at hand, instead of making it apparent earlier on and building upon it or using it as a tool to help readers better understand a character or the plot. The most immediate example from the text that comes to mind here is shortly after the death of Alex’s mother. A baseball game comes on, with the Toronto Blue Jays playing, and we’re told that, despite the fact that Alex really likes baseball and he’s a Jays fan, he doesn’t seem to care. This may seem like a minor point to many people, but think of how clean it could have been if his love of baseball was brought up earlier and mentioned periodically to establish the importance of the sport to him. Wouldn’t it set in how much more deeply he was affected by the passing when he suddenly doesn’t care about something the reader knows he always has, that priorities change at a time like this, signalling the start of a major change in the character? (A great book to read that showcases subtle but effective characterization is Omar El Akkad’s American War.)

That said, one aspect of One Brother Shy that I found effective––very much related to the previous point––was the interplay between Alex’s inner- and outer-monologue. Early on, Alex thinks about things much more than he says things out loud, with both rarely agreeing, our narrator thinking things he’d never dare say. As the story progresses, the thinking side often shortens significantly from earlier interactions (he isn’t over-thinking as much) and both sides more and more frequently come out the same (he starts to say what he thinks). I thought this was a great way to show how much he’s grown through the course of his journey.

Looking back on what I wrote here, it’s interesting to me that I’m comparing One Brother Shy to books that have absolutely no resemblance to it, which makes me think that most of my complaints have less to do with Fallis’ work and more to do with how much I enjoy this type of book, and my last review of one of his books seems to agree with this trend. So, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one, you can probably better gauge how much you’ll like One Brother Shy based on your experience with other light, comedic pop fiction.