When I sat down to write this The Good Brother book review, I gave serious thought to what I liked best about the novel. Many of the titles on my bookshelf focus on dark themes or scary circumstances. How does E. L. Chen‘s book stand out?
Then it hit me: like many people, my nerves jump into high gear when I hear an unexpected creak in my house. The allure of this book lies in the ghost you don’t expect to follow you home… yourself.
Back of the Book Blurb:
Is this what a ghost sounds like when it moves? Like the whisper of paper on wind?
“Goh-Goh is angry at you for not being a good Little Sister. Wha… Why are you so selfish? You know you are not supposed to anger bad spirits during Ghost Month.”
I sputtered, “You think Goh-Goh is a bad spirit? A gwai?”
“Ai-yah. Don’t call them that. Do you want to anger them? They are the Good Brothers. You call them the Good Brothers. Ho hing dai.”
Tori Wong is starting over. She’s fled home to do all the things she’s never done before. Like go out on weeknights, flirt with boys, and live out of the shadow of her overachieving brother, to whom her parents always compare her—even though he’s dead. But reinventing yourself isn’t as easy as it seems. Especially during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, when traditional Chinese believe that neglected spirits roam the earth. Three ghosts return: her vengeful brother Seymour, and ambitious Vicky and meek Mui-Mui, herself at age seventeen and eleven. How can you start a new life when you are literally haunted by the past?
The Good Brother Book Review:
I picked up The Good Brother at Ad Astra from ChiZine’s vendor table because the cover drew me in. A young girl with downcast eyes, sits in submissive or repentant contemplation. Ghostly hands over her shoulder either hold her down or give her comfort. The implied conflict intrigued me. After I flipped it over and read the description, I gladly forked over my money.
How can a living person be haunted by a ghost of their younger self?
Sheltered Tori Wong faces the challenge of carving out a new life as a young adult while the ghosts of her past make life Hell. She dropped out of university against the will of her strict parents, shares an apartment with a non-Chinese man, and works in a bookstore. Her parents constantly nag her to return to the ways things were.
The ghosts from her former life who haunt her don’t necessarily disagree. Her dead brother, Goh-Goh (Seymour in English), and two younger versions of Tori, are not particularly keen on her current life choices. Even her younger-self ghosts are as impossible as her parents. Not only that, but honouring Tori’s Chinese heritage asks more of her than she’s willing to give.
Secondary characters in The Good Brother were, for the most part, equally interesting and well flushed out. When Tori begins a relationship with younger, non-Chinese Egan, all three ghosts have their say – even during the private sexual moments! How magnificently creepy is that?
“How do you stop ghosts from hovering over your life? You couldn’t. You could only appease them, and then they would leave you alone. Sort of like my family.”
Chen writes in straightforward, easily digestible prose. But that doesn’t mean this is a simple book. Goh-Goh is not a complacent spirit waiting to be placated. Of the dangers he creates, I had the hardest time accepting that he caused the paralysis of Tori’s arm. Rather, my ER brain didn’t accept that Tori (and the people close to her) wouldn’t panic more about sudden limb paralysis. Also, I struggled with the narrative a bit at the end and had to read it again to make it click. I can’t explain how without writing spoilers in this The Good Brother book review. Sorry!
I loved reading a story set in my home city. Toronto is instantly recognizable. What makes The Good Brother more engaging is the fear-inducing possibility that Tori’s dead brother will destroy those familiar city features!
Chen taught me something about her culture without making me feel like she was teaching me. Tori’s resistance to, and eventual participation in, Chinese spirituality is a fascinating study of cultural values in a multi-cultural megacity. The scenes of the rituals added to the story as they weren’t employed in off-handed ways.
I enjoyed reading The Good Brother and highly recommend it to anyone who likes horror, YA novels with paranormal themes, or who wants a something new in a ghost story.
If you were haunted by younger versions of yourself, what would they say to you? What would you say to them? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below!
Click on the Leave a Comment link to share your thoughts.
Disclosure: I met the author when we were panelists together at Ad Astra, but had not read any of her work before. She didn’t ask me to write this review, nor influenced my opinion.
The Good Brother