Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider

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Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A tall story of a musical genius blighted by the misfortune of being born into a poverty-stricken village and tormented by unrequited love. The critics loved it; I found it interesting but emotionally unengaging.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 215 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Overlook Duckworth
ISBN: 9780715649206

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The blurb for the paperback edition lists Brother of Sleep as a spiritual descendant of Patrick Suskind's Perfume. If it reminded me of anything it was probably The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker, though for my taste it didn't quite measure up to what was probably my favourite book of 2013.

Brother of Sleep tells the story of Elias Johannes Alder, a child born into a god forsaken village high in the Austrian Vorarlberg. He came into the world as a silent child, while his mother was screaming and the midwife wasn't really paying attention. It took a couple of loud intonations of the Te Deum from the neglectful nurse before he finally uttered a sound.

Sound is to become the defining characteristic of his life. He is, in short, destined to become a musical genius. He can hear sounds that others cannot, and he can vocally reproduce them. If his voice sets him apart from others, his skill at the organ is what makes him truly remarkable.

But his genius is to be marked by the tragedy of not being recognised or nurtured. He is simply a very strange child, who grows up to be an even stranger young man. His tragedy is compounded by an undeclared love and (as we are told in the opening sentence) death by his own hand at the age of 22.

Such then is the sad and sorry tale… it is lifted at times by touches of magical realism. There are the unexplained events, the communion with nature, the ghosts and haunted visions that you would expect in this kind of work. I'm not sure that they worked for me.

To be fair, it is a style that I don't personally warm to. Even when done by the acknowledged masters of the art, I often find that it simply detracts from what (without it) would be possibly the more engrossing for being purely human. I'm not the best-placed then to say how well the episodes work here. They do go some way to providing practical linkages in some of the key episodes of Elias' life, which might appear disjoined without them.

But the whole book is episodic anyway, so perhaps that wouldn't have mattered quite so much. Our narrator jumps around the history of the village, and of its inhabitants, many of whom make a brief appearance and then vanish into the realms of unimportance.

What might otherwise be taken for padding works reasonably well, because of the humour. The villagers of Eschberg are an in-bred, selfish breed. When tragedy strikes (as it often does) then the Lamparters and the Alders will rally round and help each other out. It's just that they'll be making notes all the while on who gave what to whom.

As in all close-knit communities, there is the gossip, who knows everything about everyone and tells it to everyone-else in more-or-less full and exact-ish detail. There is bullying and beatings, but there is also love and beauty. There are the hard-working farmers who tend their beasts and the other kind who aren't and don't.

There's the prostitute. And the abortionist. And the Curate. And the wood-carver and the charcoal burner.

The village burns (now and then) and people are murdered or disappear. There is vanity and jealousy and stunted ambition that every now and then tries to break free.

The humour is all as dark and bleak as the lives of the villagers.

All in all it is a sad little tale. It's clever and witty, an international bestseller with its film adaptation already released. But I cannot say that I actually enjoyed it. One of those in which I can appreciate the art and the craft, but which simply failed to engage my emotion.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker is another tale of remarkable auditory ability or for more small-town witticism we'd recommend The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll

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