In this Dutch novel, 13-year-old Brian must care for his disabled older brother Lucien when he returns home for the summer from the nursing home where has been living. With a financially struggling and uncaring father who is often absent, Brian struggles to offer Lucien what he needs.
Robben...contracts the world of Summer Brother almost to a stage set, blurring peripheral details. There’s barely any cultural, political or technological context to the story. The book’s setting is fuzzy, although it feels loosely like France ... Ultimately place is unimportant. Brian lives in the land of Maurice, and navigating that volatile terrain while fumbling with his own moral compass is the heart of the book ... This stylistic myopia works, although more character exposition could have been helpful ... Robben offers crumbs, but doesn’t let us indulge too much ... Such small gripes are easily forgotten, as Robben is wonderful at drawing characters with just a few deliberate strokes ... Like a photographer shooting a portrait, Robben captures his subjects in Summer Brother in a focused close-up. It’s intimate, even claustrophobic at times, just as life must be for an isolated boy like Brian, looking with wonder to the lights on the hill.
The book’s language is precise and forthright as Brian observes, and portrays in stark terms, the intense, awkward, and lovely actions of those around him. Sharp exchanges reveal characters who are witty and earnest in equal measure. Summer Brother is a harrowing novel about dysfunctional family dynamics and the universal awkwardness of being a teenager.
... thoughtful, empathetic ... Robben...skillfully conjures a sense of unease, most notably through Brian’s first-person narration. Like most children who grow up in neglectful or abusive households, Brian does not fully understand that his father’s behavior is inappropriate, dangerous, or both, and he treats his brother with sometimes cavalier disregard ... This can be upsetting, yet Brian’s love for his brother, and Robben’s care in writing his disabled characters, remains clear throughout this nuanced novel. A sensitive yet unsentimental depiction of poverty and disability from the perspective of an abled character.