I always find the most enjoyable reviews to write are when I know nothing of the plot, have not read anybody else’s reviews, and I turn the pages and find myself being sucked into the story. That was my experience of Rosie Garland’s novel, The Night Brother, published by The Borough Press.
The Night Brother is alive with a selection of curious characters and the sights and sounds of turn of the 20th century Manchester. Right from the start we meet the two main characters, Edie and Gnome, as they slip out of the bedroom window to head to a late night fireworks display. ‘I sit up and it sets off a yawn so wide it could swallow the mattress. He presses my lips together, shutting me up as tight as the bubbles in a crate of ginger beer.’
The novel is written from the first person perspective, with chapters alternating between Edie and Gnome. As the story progresses, the distinction becomes more and more blurred. This is a story about searching for identity, exploring gender identity, and gender rights battles.
Edie and Gnome are brother and sister. They live with their Ma and Nana above a pub called The Comet of which their Ma is landlord.
Edie: ‘Stroll through Hulme of an evening and you will be forgiven for imagining it a den of drunkards. Brave the labyrinth of streets, row upon row of brick-built dwellings black as burned toast, and there, upon each and every corner, you will find it: haven for the weary traveller, fountain for the thirsty man … The Comet, Sparkling Ales is etched upon one frosted window, Fine Stouts and Porter upon the other. A board stretches the width of our wall, announcing Empress Mild and Bitter Beer. Above the door and brightest of all, the gilt scroll of my mother’s name: Cecily Margaret Latchford, Licensed to sell Beers and Stouts. Come, it beckons. Enter, and be refreshed.’
Every scene springs to life through the descriptions and mannerisms of the characters. At the market you can almost reach in and help yourself from the jars of wine gums, slab toffee, liquorice, Pontefract cakes and coltsfoot rock on the confectionery stand. The narrative is colourfully described without being overwritten. Dropped into the scene you can experience the ground crunching with sugar and see the girl weighing out the sweets has a starved look: chewed-down nails and hair draggled in sticky ringlets; ‘You buying, or wasting my time?’ the girl trills pertly. ‘No money, no service.’
The Night Brother is a tale of two halves: day and night, men and women, acceptance and rejection, dependence and independence, contrasts and similarities, all underpinned by the tensions of the suffragette movement, and sexual suppression of desires and freedoms. It’s an uneasy atmosphere, Edie, Ma and Nana afraid of whatever gifts they possess, Gnome rash with the spirit of adventure and the urgent desire to prove himself a man.
Gnome: ‘It matters not what I’m racing from or to; all I know is that I am alive. I am a mucker, a chancer, a chavvy, a cove. I grab life by the neck and squeeze every drop into my cup. If it’s good, I’ll take it by the barrel. If it’s bad I’ll do the same. I take it all: the world and his wife, the moon on a stick and the stars to sprinkle like salt on my potatoes.’
The events become darker with violent confrontations between police and the suffragettes. Edie falls in love with a suffragette called Abigail and so does Gnome.
Part 2 brings the rebellion — Gnome increasingly masculine ‘Why shouldn’t I be the prince to scale her castle walls?’ and Edie more strongly feminine. Emboldened Edie heads to a library where she is greeted warmly by the librarian, who hands her a book of Greek and Roman mythology. ‘The library is refuge and escape rolled into one. A generous world that asks nothing of me save attentiveness and rewards me with gifts beyond measure. My self-education is intoxicating and sweet.’
It is only as the story draws to a close that we find out how the difficult decisions resolve. Will Edie and Gnome find a way to co-exist; can Ma and Nana accept themselves and their children? Will Abigail favour Gnome or Edie? How much does a quarter-pound of cough candy cost?