A tale of two French brothers of Syrian descent, one struggling as a rideshare driver, the other back in the Middle East on a (maybe) humanitarian mission. Winner of the 2018 Goncourt First Novel Prize.
Older Brother, the superb debut novel by Mahir Guven, unfolds in Paris 'the way you drive a car in the banlieue: tires squealing, running red lights and stop signs.' This may be a story from the city’s outer margins, but it’s one that goes to the heart of questions roiling contemporary France ... The brothers remain unnamed until the book’s final pages and trade off as narrators, though the older one propels the story. His voice, expertly translated by Tina Kover, is wry, jaded, insouciant ... Guven was born in Nantes, the son of refugees, and worked as a journalist. He has a reporter’s knack for balancing a chorus of perspectives about everything from France’s economic tumult to its charged relationship with immigration. His book — which won a top French literary award, the Prix Goncourt for a debut novel — accomplishes what the best kind of reporting can do: wade into questions that resist simple answers, while restoring dignity to its characters ... Contradictions enrich the novel, steering it away from the territory of a plodding, dutiful fable.
... the book says nothing explicitly, but still manages to read like a thriller, in part because the lives of the marginalized are inherently full of suspense ... filled with light, sharp remarks ... The humanist screeds, delivered in lowbrow speech, come off not as moralizing but revelatory ... when Older Brother was published in France in 2017, it was praised for its convincing use of the banlieue vernacular. There are traces of that original genius in the translated edition, but much of the cadence of the language is lost—such is the tragedy of translated work. In its wake, there are American colloquialisms which distract, taking us away from the entirely believable world that the author Mahir Guven has constructed ... Guven makes elegant and confident connections between the lack of choice in the banlieues and the civil war in Syria, between immigration and terrorism.
... witty and bouncy storytelling ... Not that he's always quite so engaging; when the spirit moves Older Brother, a Muslim Frenchman in his late 20s, to recall his hardscrabble upbringing in a Paris banlieue, or suburb, he sometimes lapses into cliché ... In between the streetwise humor and the badass banalities flows the thought-provoking and topical tale that is Older Brother ... translated from the original colloquial French into appropriately brash and energetic English by Tina Kover. Initially frustrating due to narration that is desultory on Older Brother's part and intermittent in the case of Younger Brother, the story takes a beguiling turn when author Guven folds the plot back on itself ... the reader's sympathy for Younger Brother, so carefully cultivated by the author, is chipped away at by Older Brother's anxiety regarding his just-returned sibling's plans ... a twist that could easily have undermined the entire story. Guven dexterously pulls it off. In the process, he achieves something counterintuitive with his novel: Older Brother is a shaggy dog yarn whose conclusion, far from constituting the expected letdown in such instances, proves both clever and wistful.