31 October 2014

Philippe Besson: Son frère (2001)

Lucas has returned to his family's home on the coast to join his brother Thomas, who is suffering from a blood disease which is incurable: his time is limited.

The brothers have been separated from each other for some time, and this is a final opportunity for them to be together at their childhood holiday home at Saint-Clément-des-Baleines on Île de Ré – the place where land meets the nothingness of the vast Atlantic, seeming (symbolically, of course) the end of the world.

As with Besson's La Trahison de Thomas Spencer, the main characters of Son frère are two males, although in the former novel they strongly resemble brothers as opposed to the actual brothers of this novel. But there is no (self-evident) homosexual undertow in Son frère.

The narrative takes the form of a kind of journal narrated by Lucas, although it weaves between the past and the present. But most of it is in the present, involving Thomas's illness, a series of blood tests and operations, usually negative results, and much heartache.

The drama of the second half of the novel is dominated by an old man who at first comes to tell the brothers that he's been watching Thomas – who now looks like an old man too, many years more than his chronological age – and who talks to them on several occasions. His final talk is addressed specifically to Thomas, and tells of a young woman who was drowned off the coast. His words 'On ne va pas contre la volonté de l'océan' ('You can't argue with the will of the ocean') seems to have a symbolic – even premonitory – significance. It certainly has a strong effect on Thomas.

Thomas confesses to Lucas that he had a girlfriend, Annette, whom he got pregnant and – contrary to Thomas's wishes – refuses to have an abortion. (Lucas muses that the same problem wouldn't have happened to him as he's gay.) Annette goes swimming the day after the argument, gets in trouble and yells to Thomas for help, but he hesitates, then goes to rescue her, is within twenty metres of her but he's too late to rescue her.

If he hadn't hesitated he'd have saved her, wouldn't he? The guilt. Thomas knows he's dying, but he cuts his life slightly shorter by yielding to the will of the ocean. The police find Lucas's body in exactly same spot as they found Annette's body: on the beach of Saint-Sauveur.

Unfortunately, this is a book that only really seems to take off in the second half.

Links to my other Besson posts:

Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: « Arrète avec tes mensonges »

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