I wanted to fit this book into my current reading queue as I was delighted to discover it was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and already sitting on my bookshelf. Wait Softly Brother by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a (somewhat?) experimental novel, one that I wasn’t exactly sure I fully grasped, but found myself getting caught up in the characters’ lives nonetheless. I’ve reviewed a Kuitenbrouwer book before, and really enjoyed it, so no surprise this one also appeals to me, and to prize juries!
Protagonist Kathryn begins the book by pulling over to the side of the highway and calling her friend in tears; she’s decided to leave her husband of two decades and is on her way to stay with her parents in their aging farmhouse for a while. She leaves behind her two teenage boys and a resentful partner who is hoping this will just blow over. It doesn’t. Kathryn arrives at her childhood home to find her two parents who are also hoping it will just blow over – almost daily, they try to convince her to just go back to her family, even giving her ultimatums that she just ignores. While there, a rainstorm descends on the area and doesn’t leave. For weeks on end it rains while their fields flood and the roads become impassable. But Kathryn is fully occupied by things other than the weather – she is there to learn about her brother who never survived childbirth, a stillborn named Wulf who her parents avoid talking about. Desperate to learn more about him, she begins sifting through her parents detritus in their basement when her Mom presents an interesting piece of family lore; old letters pertaining to a distant relative from the 1800s. The book alternates between the story of Kathryn’s weeks-long stay at her parents house, and the fictional life and narrative she builds around Russell Boyt, a soldier who fought in, and lost his leg to the civil war.
The entire book floats in a dream-like atmosphere, making it very difficult for the reader to discern what is real, and what is not. Firstly, the fact that the protagonist has the same name of the author, and is also a writer, really had me dying to know whether or not this was based in reality; did Kuitenbrouwer leave her husband like in this book? (and if so, why do I care?) It just niggled at me, what did or didn’t actually happen in real life. The fictional character based on small snippets of truth, Russell, struggles with reality, as he suffers from a bad case of PTSD, even admitting that he is “becoming strange”, so we can’t believe everything he tells us. But we also can’t believe everything Kathryn’s parents are telling us; they are clearly hiding something, and her mother falls into a feverish period where she babbles nonsense that Kathryn tries to make sense of, in hopes it will offer clues about Wulf’s short life.
Even the landscape that fills with water around Kathryn takes on a magical sheen; Kathryn catches glimpses of her stillborn brother stealing around the forest, and Kathryn herself has webbed fingers, which allows her to swim more efficiently, something she is certain kept her alive as a child. Kathryn has a few fears; one is that her parents’ house is being swallowed by the land as the flooding continues, and that an old story from her family’s past is coming true and there are selkie roots in her and her brother. Her parents are constantly telling her that it’s only her imagination when she recalls certain situations from her childhood, and in Russell’s case, his imagination is a danger to him, and others. Kathryn’s parents also fear her imagination, and its referred to as a problem from her childhood, but in the case of this book, it’s her imagination that’s creating Russell’s life, and keeping her sanely occupied while’s trapped by the rain.
Regardless of what’s happening in the present day, Russell’s fictional retelling is vibrant and intricate, impressive in the amount of detail we learn about him through Kathryn’s mind. Switching back and forth between the two narratives offers an easy kind of suspense, one that kept me pushing through the chapters are a quick pace, eager to see how the stories turned out for both. Some readers may not appreciate the ambiguousness of this book, but if you can get comfortable with the idea of never truly knowing, it’s a book worth trying.