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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Half Brother

Lars Saabye Christensen

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To purchase The Half Brother

Title: The Half Brother
Author: Lars Saabye Christensen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 682 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Half Brother - US
The Half Brother - UK
The Half Brother - Canada
Le demi-frère - France
Der Halbbruder - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: Halvbroren
  • Translated by Kenneth C. Steven
  • Winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize, 2002

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful personal saga, with many interwoven themes, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 2/6/2003 Gerard Woodward
The Guardian A+ 24/5/2003 Paul Binding
The Independent A+ 14/6/2003 Anna Paterson
The Independent A+ 6/2/2004 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday . 11/1/2004 Alastair Sooke
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 28/8/2003 Aldo Keel
New Statesman A 16/6/2003 Julian Evans
San Francisco Chronicle D 23/5/2004 Timothy Peters
Der Spiegel . (3/2003) Angela Gatterburg
The Times D 11/6/2003 Christina Koning
The Times A+ 14/2/2004 Chris Power
TLS . 17/10/2003 Tim Souster
VLS . 5/2004 Darren Reidy

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but many think it is fabulous

  From the Reviews:
  • "It moves effortlessly from surreal comedy to touching scenes of domestic intimacy. Like its narrator, who barely seems to grasp the basics of human reproduction, it has an engaging innocence. The pace slackens at times, particularly towards the end but, for the most part, the language has enough energy and inventiveness to carry us along. A big, rewarding read." - Gerard Woodward, Daily Telegraph

  • "Truly everyone in this novel, however apparently small their impact on events, has galvanic reality: they are distinct, mysterious yet apprehensible worlds in themselves. Mystery is of the book's very essence, for all the clarity, the realism of the presentation. (...) The Half Brother (...) is no mere interesting example of contemporary Scandinavian writing; it's a deeply felt, intricately worked and intellectually searching work of absolutely international importance." - Paul Binding, The Guardian

  • " The Half Brother is magnificent: a roman fleuve within a single volume. Sub-plots, reflections and inventive sidelines run into the mainstream narrative, with only the odd new paragraph or chapter allowed to break the smooth bulk of the text. (...) The Half Brother is like Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions meeting Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections." - Anna Paterson, The Independent

  • "A total knock-out of a novel from Norway. (...) The high-octane narrative sparkles like sunlit snow in Kenneth Steven's pacy, muscular translation." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "A study of memory and mental processes, The Half Brother is a gargantuan meditation on the pain of intellectual being. This immense yarn about a "flyweight" character is also a heavyweight novel of ideas, full of authorial sleights of hand, occupying a curious cusp between laughter and tears." - Alastair Sooke, Independent on Sunday

  • "Lars Saabye Christensens Familienchronik Der Halbbruder handelt von Schwindlern und von Filmern, von vaterlosen Söhnen, vom Verhältnis der Geschlechter und von hundert Jahren norwegischer Geschichte. Zugleich erzählt der Roman vom Erzählen." - Aldo Keel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The Half Brother wears its European literary pedigree visibly but lightly throughout its 782 pages. The novel is shaped by a metaphor hinted at in Barnum's name -- the world is a circus if we would like it to be. (...) Despite the novel's length, there is very little extraneous narrative." - Julian Evans, New Statesman

  • "He doesn't just cover a lot of ground in the course of almost 700 pages, he covers all of it, relating every anecdote and remnant of family mythmaking he could conceive of. His inventiveness is astonishing, but not particularly pleasurable (.....) No doubt the story of Barnum and his family speaks to Norwegians more powerfully than it can ever speak to Americans, but even allowing for that, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about." - Timothy Peters, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "In Christensens Kosmos wimmelt es von seltsamen Käuzen. Mit seinem außerordentlichen Einfallsreichtum und komödiantischen Talent versteht der Autor es meisterhaft, seine verschlungenen Handlungsfäden irgendwann wieder zusammenzuführen beziehungsweise zu entwirren." - Angela Gatterburg, Der Spiegel

  • "Barnum's script, we learn, is going to be the story of his life -- and it is this which then ensues. Unfortunately for the reader, it is not even in the form of a screenplay, with plenty of dialogue and white space to break up the text. This is a solid chunk of prose narrated at a pace that is not so much leisurely as funereal. Every event in the central character's life is allocated at least 50 pages of exposition. Long before the middle of the book -- by which time Barnum is not yet out of adolescence -- one is skipping ahead to see if there are going to be any more amusing bits about the film industry to leaven the dense texture of the rest." - Christina Koning, The Times

  • "Christensenís tenth novel is a deliriously enjoyable, emotionally exhausting triumph." - Chris Power, The Times

  • "The Half Brother combines the meticulousness of a short story and the ambition of an epic and in doing so shows time passing in a new way. By favouring event over explication and imagination over analysis it allows readers to draw any appropriate conclusions." - Tim Souster, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Rife with cinematic detail, Christensen's prose is nevertheless straightforward, nearly to a fault. Yet the ultimate effect is one of concealment. (...) Christensen's is a sincere reticence, born of memory's cracks and creations, inspiring a rare and unfashionable affect: wonder." - Darren Reidy, Voice Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Half Brother doesn't begin with a false start, but with several halting ones. A brief prologue recounting a scene from the narrator's childhood is followed by a present-day scene at the Berlin film festival, Barnum Nilsen, who tells this story, having become a screenwriter. The pivotal figure in both of these sections is Barnum's half-brother, Fred. Both sections end with muffled bangs whose significance is implied in the presentation but left, at those moments, unclear.
       Christensen is in no hurry to to clear things up, either. After this unsettling double-beginning he makes an even greater leap, to 1945 and the years that followed. Barnum recounts the events around his half-brother's conception and birth, and family life in those first post-war years. The section is titled "The Women", and it centres on the lives of the boys' mother, Vera, and her mother, Boletta, and grandmother, known as the Old One. The account is as detailed as the two previous ones were, but the shift is a radical one: what Barnum recounts here happened before he was born. He does not explain why he should know these details -- these aren't (with a few exceptions) oft-repeated family tales he's writing down, and he offers no other excuses why he should be considered a reliable narrator.
       In the next section there is another, similar leap, as Barnum relates the story of Arnold Nilsen, who would become his father. And it is only then, when Arnold finally comes into the life of the three women and Fred, and courts Vera and moves in with them and becomes Barnum's father that the book segues into a (more or less) straightforward chronological account centred almost entirely around the narrator and his experience. For a long stretch there are only a few sidesteps -- mainly brief glimpses of Fred's experiences.
       Christensen takes his time, slowly shaping the story. The technique pays off, as the story snowballs, gaining weight and gathering momentum, its true shape becoming ever-clearer.
       At first, The Half Brother seems merely to collect and connect some clever, off-beat stories. Fred's conception and birth is a good, dramatic, suggestive story, and the household of three generations of women dealing with the situation nicely handled -- a decent little novella right there. Arnold's story is a (worryingly) quirkier one: undersized, he knows from earliest childhood that he has to flee the remote Norwegian town where he was born. He does escape, as soon as he can -- and actually joins the circus. Fortunately, Christensen doesn't harp on that too much: it's a defining episode in Arnold's life, but it doesn't get out of hand.
       Arnold appears in the lives of the women, a mystery man who will always retain some air of mystery about him. He never fully integrates with the family, and eventually comes and goes unpredictably. He does accomplish a few things, including getting his son baptized 'Barnum', but remains an odd mixture of cheer and failure.
       Arnold and Vera's son, Barnum, also turns out to be undersized (among the many fine pieces in the book is his realisation that he is different). His stunted state marks him, but it is not a completely dominating characteristic. In fact, the book is so full of physically damaged characters that it hardly seems extraordinary: Arnold's hand was blown up by a mine, Barnum's first love has a mole, his best friend is fat and has a mother who is a cripple, while another close friend has a mother who wears a veil to hide her disfigured face.
       Barnum's half-brother Fred is several years older, and Barnum both loves and fears him. Fred is also damaged. Dyslexic, taciturn, unpredictable, he moves outside most social norms. He stops speaking for some two years, and goes very much his own way most of the time. What in others would appear to be self-destructive behaviour -- and there's a lot of it -- only appears to make him stronger.
       The family is full of night men: "Men who disappear". The first was Wilhelm, the beloved of the Old One, Ellen Jebsen, who left in 1900 on the SS Antarctic for Greenland and vanished, leaving behind only a letter and Ellen pregnant with Boletta. The letter is totemic for the family: the most valued possession, learnt by heart by the boys, inspiring Fred to long for Greenland. When it disappears the family is torn apart, with Fred eventually vanishing completely. Barnum tries his damnedest too, eventually finding himself well on the way: "Down. Away. Out" But he isn't a true night man.
       The longest sections of The Half Brother focus on Barnum's childhood and coming of age. He comes into his own slowly, but does find some hold and future once he makes friends with fat Peder and Vivian, and finds his passion for film and for writing.
       Fred, a dark shadow flitting in and out of view, is a presence Barnum can't entirely escape -- and isn't sure he wants to. The protective older brother also finds something he is fit for: boxing. But his idea of victory is different than most, and even this activity isn't enough to secure him some position in society. Instead, he drifts off even further -- and ultimately out of sight.
       Barnum's talent is writing, but he needs others to spur him on. He wins a prize for a story, but it was his mother who submitted it for consideration (while he had hidden it away). Years later his wife does the same with a screenplay, for which he again wins a prize. There are several stories that interest him. Fattening is the title of his first, part-autobiographical screenplay, but it is the story of his brother and his family, The Night Man, that he is obsessed with and that he has to get out of his system (and that he has great difficulties with). The Half Brother is, in essence, The Night Man.
       After lingering over Barnum's adolescence the books spins apart in much looser, far-flung bits. Without Fred Barnum's centre does not hold. (The book's title applies not only to Fred, but also to Barnum, who is the brother who is literally only half a man (in stature) -- and incomplete when left to himself). In shorter chapters, in briefer episodes separated by greater periods, the book advances in quick spurts. He marries, he writes, but until he has re-worked his past he risks drifting off like all the other night men in the family. Time alone, he knows, isn't the great healer: "Time freezes wounds like open scars."
       Among Barnum's father's pearls of wisdom is one oft-repeated sentence: "It's not what you see that matters most but rather what you think you see." Christensen doesn't let the readers forget it. There doesn't appear to be that much ambiguity in most of the book's sights, but one of Barnum's insights is more revealing:

The eye twists the world, and everything you see now and will see in the future has revisionist power.
       The exercise of recapturing the past -- which for Barnum extends to the time before he was born (accounts that are necessarily essentially pure invention) -- shows the revisionist shifts that Barnum undergoes. He rarely sees clearly (or feels he does), Christensen capturing the childish confusion in and misinterpretation of an adult world especially well. Barnum writes to create (or re-create), but has only occasional success; only at the end, the family reunited, does the picture become clearer. (Photography is of some significance in the novel as well: one roll of film goes undeveloped for ages, and several of the characters fear what it means to be captured on film in this way -- and at least one photograph printed in a newspaper is published with an entirely incorrect description.)
       Barnum's father's best advice is:
"Spread rumors, and sow doubt, Barnum." "Why ?" I asked. "Because no one'll believe you anyway," he replied. He laughed. "And besides, the truth's boring, Barnum."
       Barnum doesn't admit to how seriously he took his father's advice, but he doesn't forget it (and Christensen reminds the reader as well, though far less often than the idea that what matters most is what you think you see). Certainly, it's something to keep in mind in reading these fantastical tales.
       Barnum's father, Arnold, appreciated deception, and practiced it as well. He remains largely unknowable, to Barnum and the others, a father who was often present but ultimately left near as large a void as Fred's father did. These absent men -- even the ghost of the absent Wilhelm -- haunt the family, and stunt Barnum. The similarly diminutive Arnold managed to grow -- but only in width; Barnum's screenplay Fattening suggests he believed it might be a solution for him as well, but in the screenplay 'Barnum' only watches, while it is another boy that meets this fate, and in real life it is Peder who is fat in Barnum's stead -- his other half in a way Fred (or his wife) can never be.

       The Half Brother is an impressive, ambitious, big novel. Christensen sustains a remarkable narrative flow: the story and these lives unfold as slowly as a flower opening in the sun, the result as surprising and splendid. It is a book full of the unexpected, but most of this invention isn't of the forced fantastical sort encountered too often in fictions: most of what Christensen offers seems entirely real, almost inevitable (again sustained by Barnum's convincing -- if not necessarily reliable -- voice and point of view). There are a few missteps -- it would be great to read a novel where the characters pass through Hamburg in the early 1960s and don't catch a glimpse of the Beatles -- and Barnum's later years aren't as fully realised as one might have perhaps wished, but overall this is a marvelous family saga.

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The Half Brother: Reviews: Lars Saabye Christensen: Other books by Lars Saabye Christensen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen was born in 1953.

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© 2004-2022 the complete review

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