‘Oh Brother’, by John Niven

A fiction writer of significant repute already, John Niven’s biography of his brother Gary – affectionately known as “Shades” from his childhood – and told in parallel with Niven’s own life story, is a deeply person depiction of a troubled, gifted individual who felt compelled to rage against authority following a challenging upbringing by their father. 

The account begins with a telephone call that generates the phrase that Niven informs us is synonymous with his parents’ response to the latest example of Gary’s antics: ‘Oh Gary – what have you done now?’. In this instance the call is taken by Helen (Gary’s partner) and we discover that Gary is in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit of North Ayrshire District General Hospital after a suicide attempt. Referring to the Very Bad News which Niven has learned to anticipate by reading body language, the reader is catapulted into the chaotic, bleak but often blackly comic world which the brothers shared. Niven hints that there is substantially more to this novel that simply biography when he mentions that the account of his brother’s 999 call ‘will be corroborated by the transcript […] which it will later take me three Freedom of Information requests to obtain’ (p. 11). His brother’s sunny and rational disposition when talking to the paramedics who see him is in marked contrast with that which you’d imagine of a man on the verge of suicide. In many respects, at such an early point in the novel, these complexities and contrasts come to epitomise the chameleon-like nature of Niven’s brother. 

Early in the novel, Niven briefly mentions a medical condition his brother suffered from called ‘cluster headaches’ and how these were of such a severity he had to breathe oxygen in order to force them to abate. We are already presented with a character who has to overcome physical and mental challenges in order to maintain a functional existence and, whom one suspects, may not have received or sought the necessary medical help available due to the unreconstructed nature of his personality and the vagaries in his personal life up until this point. The novel is expertly structured with flashbacks at this point, from the ICU to Gary on Christmas morning in 1993, ‘the first Christmas after Dad died’ and his adult rage as he is ‘furiously punching the wooden walls of the garage’ (p. 13) and the recollection that in 2009 John had written a book called COMA (German translation) in which a character (Gary Irvine) bearing a striking resemblance to his brother  finds himself in the same location and circumstances as Gary Niven. 

The process of recollection and review that the family goes through is described with surgical precision: ‘as you embark on something like this, as you comb through the years, you are confronted with something like an identify parade of former selves. […] Aspects of all these personas have been jettisoned along the way’ (p. 17). This veritable hit parade of different characters who come to resemble the person you know now have to be examined in case clues are left or evidence missed as the author frantically tries to identify the points at which a stronger intervention could have prevented this situation occurring. However, this is not the only process represented and John Niven comments this reviewing of the different characters he observed in his brother over the years is ‘what it feels like to me, the memoir. A forced confession’ (p. 18). This is a powerful note upon which to end the first chapter and clarifies that the memoir will not just commemorate and commiserate but it may well condemn. 

Born on Wednesday 31 July 1968 at 3 a.m., Gary Niven enters a world where The Beatles have just recorded The White AlbumDad’s Army debuts on British television, there are global riots and civil uprising, King and Kennedy are assassinated and, as his brother presciently observes ‘Wednesday’s child, as we are told, is full of woe […] you can read anything into anything’ (p. 24). The Nivens’ father has a solid and respected trade as a site electrician for a new shopping centre development which will lead to a prestigious role with Land Securities. They are, to the observer, a comfortable middle-class family and ‘a cut above our neighbours, above the Glasgow folk’ (p. 26). As he grows, Gary realises he is overshadowed by John’s developmental advantages and realises he must find an alternative way to ‘take centre stage’ (p. 32). The tone of self-determination which accompanies John’s writing makes it clear that he believes his brother’s actions to be wilful from an early age, nothing deterministic but the pure assertion of a child’s ego, the strength of personality showing through. Later Gary will shrug when asked why he hurled a stone through the kitchen of the family home and John will, on a separate occasion, brave the waters of the local pond (this is the time of Jaws) to retrieve shoes that Gary has hurled. On each occasion Gary is punished or rescued from punishment by others and this is a pattern which characterises his adult life as well but there remains an unrepentant demeanour when challenged – it manifests into an expectation that he can draw on the generosity and kindness of others whilst making the same mistakes repeatedly.  Following an accident in which the family television is smashed John observes ‘it’s a situation that will become familiar: me blabbering out the defence while Gary stands mute behind me’ (p. 44). All too often drawn to the devil on the shoulder as opposed to the Angel, Gary’s bravado manifests itself  later ‘in far grimmer circumstances’ (p. 39). 

It would be conducting a disservice to immediately jump to labels such as neurodivergent or attribute a blanket corollary regarding Gary’s personality and its transition into his adult life, and I think John Niven’s sensitive balancing act between accommodation and condemnation is a testament to his skill as a writer and his relationship with his brother. There is no absolution of guilt nor is there a pulpit thumping tract about the dangers of a wayward childhood. Instead we are taken on a journey of two wildly different paths in life. Oh Brother is both a lament and a eulogy for one who was talented but tortured and those friends and family who were carried in his wake.

Oh Brother is published by Canongate

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