“I don't know if I’m the sort of writer who starts with a theme or with a character,” says Canadian novelist David Chariandy.I’m really the type of writer who gets struck by an image or an arrangement of words.”

For Brother, which won Canada’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last year and is now being released Stateside, the image was this: two young brothers looking upward, discussing the possibility of climbing a utility pole. “I think that’s what kicked it off, that moment between them when they are struggling to figure out if they dare do something this reckless in order to see—to simply see. Maybe that’s all the novelist hopes to do as well,” he proposes. “To simply see and see truthfully with a sense of authenticity regarding the characters and voice and situation.”

It’s the scene that opens the novel, a sleek one-page prologue. The brothers are Michael and Francis. “You had to watch your older brother and follow close his moves,” observes Michael, watching Francis. “You had to think back on every step before you took it. Remembering the whole way up.”

When the novel picks up again, it’s 10 years later: Michael is an adult, still living in the public housing complex in Scarborough, on the outskirts of Toronto, caring for their mother. Francis is dead. The book weaves seamlessly between the past—Michael and Francis growing up; Michael and Francis as teenagers—and the haunted present. It is, our reviewer writes, a “slender volume with the heart of a family epic.”

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“I understood that it needed to be a nonlinear narrative, a narrative in which the story of the past ghosted in to what is occurring in the present,” says Chariandy, who himself grew up on the eastern edge of Scarborough, not so far away from his characters. What choice did he have, really? “That would seem to me to be the only way I could be faithful to the mental condition of the speaker of the book.” The kind of calamity Michael experiences as a teenager really isn’t the kind of thing that can be neatly contained by time and distance, Chariandy explains. It’s “a calamity that continues to intrude into the present.”

You could say, if you wanted, that Brother is “about” life in Toronto’s suburbs or state-sanctioned violence or intolerable grief, and he wouldn’t disagree with you. It is about all that. But what he wants to talk about is people. “This book is not a political tract; neither is it a work of history or sociology,” he says. “It’s about lives and how people make sense of their lives before, during, and after violence is inflicted upon them.”

Brother cover And so it’s not an accident that the novel’s pivotal act of brutality takes up just a few sentences. “I did not want to reduce the book to that violence,” Chariandy says. It is the engine for the novel, not the point of it. “I would put it this way: I would say my novel is about life. And life that is all the more precious and important to honor even because there is a tragic death in the story.”

Which, of course, is its own kind of political statement. “I felt, personally, in this story a responsibility to affirm life,” Chariandy says. “To affirm black life. In its complexity. In its grief. In its beauty. In its genius.”

And in its tenderness. He wanted to capture the enduring affection between young black men—a careful kind of tenderness. “The young men in my book often assume they have to adopt postures of toughness,” he says, pointing out that “there’s really nothing wrong with being tough and being sufficiently guarded about your emotions, especially if you’re being hurt all the time.” But alongside that toughness is profound tenderness. “That’s a whole other story of the lives I wanted to capture. Another enduring story.”

Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.