Review: ‘Brother Alive’ by Zain Khalid

Brother Alive

Brother Alive is an intellectual feast, an existential wail, the anguished contraction of feeling, a pyretic dream. Simply put, it’s a work like no other. Stitched from three unique parts, the novel tells the story of three brothers connected not by blood or race, but by the protective gaze of their adoptive father, Imam Salim.

But as the man begins to unravel, the mystery shrouding his relationship with the boys’ parents transforms into a physical, gouging weight; one that propels them back to Saudi Arabia, where they confront the horrors of their shared past.

Khalid’s decadent prose roils and subdues the pages of the book, swelling around the seam of its poetic tone, fudging the grainy feel of reality. With its tidal portrayal of a world both physical and formless, the narration rushes through us, delighting and confounding in equal measure.

And the deeper we delve into the story, the more ominous the enigma of Youssef’s mental affliction appears. The Brother’s shape acclimates to the fissures it leaves in the boy’s form, cementing their relationship as not only parasitic, but oddly tender.

Khalid paints a visceral world, one of touch and taste and smell, made fatty and plush by its various sensory elements. This physicality extends to the central group of characters, molded into a family by time and circumstance; the volatility of emotion that stuffs the present back into the past.

The repartee between the brothers is particularly pleasing, with its communion between humor and fraternal devotion; a tangible thing that screeches from the strain it’s put under by life’s twistings. The way the author looks at terrorism as both a concept and an act foreign to the boys, but still bound to them by virtue of their faith and appearance, is disarming.

He uses dark humor to demystify the threat, to neutralize and subvert emotion. What follows is the boys’ bleak, untouched acceptance of life’s burdens, the prejudices that brand them outsiders in the West.

Of course, this view evolves over time, hardens to match the scope of their expanding awareness and baffled rage, in turn thickening the story’s prevalent sense of despair. And while it feeds primarily on the body, this feeling also intrudes on the mind, which ends up being both the stage on which the plot unfurls, and its ultimate spoil.

As both Youssef and Imam Salim are gradually disassembled, and their emotional lives thinned to match the wilting shape of their bodies, the prose takes on the feel of a stripped, floundering nerve.

It leaves the characters tender, in a state of agonized exposure, controlled by the force and texture of emotion; the cooling breath of every passing moment. And since Khalid’s world is a sensory one, the reader is left thrashing in solidarity.

That’s not to say that Brother Alive earns its appeal only for its reflections concerning humanity, corporeality and love. The novel’s sentiment, gliding through the narrative as a wholly separate entity, is undeniably helmed by meaty intrigue.

The deeper we reach into the plot, the more clarity we find. In the end, it’s the midsection of the feral tale that contorts and mangles its own face, redefining the past as only the present can. With ruthless, breathtaking precision, Khalid tears into the notion of identity, the very thing that defines the physical and the transcendent.

Under his ministrations, the mind buckles. Identities are splayed open and reworked, exposed to the tonguing of the depths of the subconscious. This impression is made full-bodied by the characters’ constant questioning of the validity of their sentiments, their fury and indignation, as well as their convictions.

Naturally, this leads to a further splintering of reality, demanding deeper meditation on the placement of the self in a capitalist world, which is known to operate in stark contrasts; from poverty to opulence. Breaching the gap requires the invention of grey space, facilitated by a sedated morality.

Overall, Brother Alive is an exhilarating study of selfhood. Intensified by the synergy between circumstance and impulse, the novel shocks the mind into alertness, and the body into grief.

Publication date: July 12, 2022 (Grove Atlantic)


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