From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review – We Never Talk About My Brother

Though not prolific, it is hard to deny that the writing of Peter S. Beagle is, as Neil Gaiman puts it, “the gold standard of fantasy.” The Hugo and Nebula award winning author Gaiman praises so highly has collected some of that gold standard into a new collection, We Never Talk About My Brother.

Published by Tachyon Press, this collection of nine stories highlights the versatility of Beagle, who writes epic fantasy as well as he does the paranormal, and whose sword and sorcery tales are as beautifully sculpted as Michelangelo’s David.

Charles De Lint opens the collection with an introduction in which he describes the work of Peter Beagle as having “character.” “There are only a handful [of writers] who can introduce us to any sort of character, in any setting and time, and thoroughly inhabit that character’s skin… Peter’s definitely one of those…His palette is rich with character colours and you’ll never mistake one for another.” It is high praise, but De Lint’s claims are evidenced by the collection, and so it is true praise as well.

In “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel,” Beagle draws on his own childhood as a Jewish boy growing up in the Bronx. Uncle Chaim is an artist, and the narrator is his young nephew. One day, quite unexpectedly, an angel appears to Uncle Chaim and claims to be his muse. Uncle Chaim had never needed a muse before, but quickly becomes consumed with trying to paint the angel perfectly, something he fails to do time and again. The narrative comes to a head when Aunt Rifke brings the local rabbi to take a look at this angel, with surprising results. Beagle draws deeply on Jewish beliefs, superstitions, and his own childhood to craft this tale. He once again shows that his ability to write from the perspective of children is superb. The young child who tells us this tale as a memory becomes very real to the reader, and even though that reader may have had a quite different childhood, Beagle puts you into the character so deeply you could easily believe this boy’s tale was your own.

The story which gives the title to the collection, “We Never Talk About My Brother,” is about two brothers, one of whom has a gift for bending the world to his will by simply desiring something to occur. Jacob, who is the poorly educated narrator, knows that his brother Esau can make his wishes come true, but there is little he is able to do about it until Esau returns home to make a videography of his life. The result of that confrontation surprises even Jacob. The narrative is an interesting way of looking at history, as if individuals within it bent the world to their will, and in so doing made us believe that this is the way things have always been, So that when the Bible (or other historical document) “zigs and zags and contradicts itself…[it is] actually trying to record a world that keeps shifting this way and that, because people keep messing with it.” The story is a mix of Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years and Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting, but without the immortality. It is a completely science fiction explanation for the strange course history has taken, as told through the eyes of someone witnessing the very reason for it in our modern day. It is fascinating reading and a clever concept.

“The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is a Japanese fairy tale, set in medieval Japan. Junko is a poor commoner who has managed to become a local lord’s chief huntsman. One day, on a hunt, he accidentally wounds an otter, who subsequently speaks to him. It turns out that the otter is actually a woman who can shapeshift. The two fall in love and are married. But Sayuri is more than she seems, and the question of her humanity is the crux of the story. Beagle captures the essence of fairy tale, and his medieval Japan is not a transplanted Western one. He carefully creates an Eastern setting. His characters too, while sharing in the motivations all humans have, feel and act differently from those of the West. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is a morality play about the effects of a desire for power and doing bad things for the right reasons. This story ends unhappily, but readers are meant to walk away having learned something about themselves from the tragedy of Junko and Sayuri.

Beagle writes another tale about being careful what you wish for in “King Pelles the Sure.” Pelles is king of a small, peaceful nation, but rather than being grateful for what he has, he desires war so that he might find glory for himself. His vizier tries to fulfill his wishes, but it all goes rather badly. What Beagle has written is a poignant anti-war tale.

“The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” is the story of a man, an American librarian, who inexplicably becomes completely French. He speaks French, loves French cuisine, and takes on the stereotypical French personality. Beagle’s story is funny in its occasional jabs at French politics and lifestyle, and sad as it tells the story of a happily married couple being pulled further and further apart. The true hero of the tale is not Mr. Moscowitz, but rather his wife, who does not suffer the disease that makes Moscowitz become French, but yet heroically stays by her man, even when they move to France. Heartfelt and sad, this is one of the best stories of the collection.

Beagle’s famous protagonist Joe Farrell makes an appearance in “Spook.” Haunted by a specter in his girlfriend’s apartment, Farrell is challenged by the spook to a duel. Given the choice of weapons, Farrell chooses bad poetry. The poetry is included as part of the narrative and it will certainly make the reader cringe. “Spook” is a humorous tale set in just the right place in the collection, falling just after one of Beagle’s sadder stories. It lightens the mood of the collection and shows that Beagle is an author in every sense, able to entertain as well as elucidate.

“The Stickball Witch” was originally a podcast for The Green Man Review but was converted into a printed format for this collection. Like the first story of the collection, Beagle draws on his childhood in the Bronx and memories of the street baseball called “stickball” and the tales everyone has of the crazy old person who lived on their street. The tale is a nod to spring, to sport, and to the youth of a bygone era.

“By Moonlight” is a fairy tale of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the Celtic Otherworld. In it, a highwayman on the run encounters a preacher who claims to have been Titania’s lover. The highwayman is enthralled by the story the minister elaborates, almost to the point of getting caught by the local sheriff. The tale paints an elaborate pre-Raphaelite painting of the world of Oberon and Titania, and the sad co-existence of the tow rulers of Fairyland. It is a wonderful, fanciful tale best told late at night with a warm fire at your feet.

“Chandail” is a story that returns to the world of Beagle’s famous novel, The Innkeeper’s Song. Lalkhamsin-khamsolal has become an old storyteller remembering an encounter with the vision-producing fish called the chandail. When, as a young woman, Lal encounters a beached chandail, her first instinct is to pass it by, because its use of her memories is painful for the former slave. But something makes her seek to save it, and the encounter brings Lal the revenge-seeker a measure of peace. The story is certainly an excellent one for those who have read The Innkeeper’s Song but it is also an excellent introduction to one of its primary characters. It ends the collection well, showcasing Beagle’s talent for creating characters that readers care about, and for weaving emotion into every word.

We Never Talk About My Brother is an excellent collection of Beagle’s fiction. It highlights the broad scope of Beagle’s body of work and his flair for characterization. Even when reading a tale of humor as in “Spook” the readers will dive into the characters perspective as deeply as a treasure seeker hunts the sea. A wonderful collection from a wonderful writer, We Never Talk About My Brother should be on everyone’s reading list.

John Ottinger’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in The Fix, Sacramento Book Review, Stephen Hunt’s SFCrowsnest, Thaumatrope, Tor.com, and Publisher’s Weekly.

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