In his latest novel, One Brother Shy, Terry Fallis continues his streak of creating characters prone to self-deprecation, unnerving honesty and darkly comical views of the world around them.
Fallis is an award-winning Canadian author of five national bestsellers, so he’s pretty much got the market cornered on developing heartwarming and humourous stories. His debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and was crowned the 2011 winner of CBC’s Canada Reads as the "essential Canadian novel of the decade." In September 2015, The Best Laid Plans debuted as a stage musical in Vancouver. It will be interesting to see if One Brother Shy follows this path.
One Brother Shy is about 24-year-old software engineer Alex MacAskill. Like previous Fallis characters, Alex is a somewhat reluctant protagonist with self-esteem issues. He lives in Ottawa and works for a fictional software company getting ready to launch the next generation of facial-recognition software.
Despite Alex’s prowess building pristine computer code, his people skills are lacking. He is haunted by a traumatic event that happened when he was 15 years old.
One Brother Shy explores a lot of familial emotions, including grief, in ways that are profoundly relatable. As Alex deals with grief for the first time, his therapist states: "Sometimes it’s the need to manage all the logistics that a loved one’s death entails that keeps us functioning until we’re actually able to deal with the reality of their loss."
The crux of One Brother Shy is the search for family and for self, but the story plays out much like a cleverly written Seinfeld episode, including comical but hard-to-believe coincidences — for example, that Alex’s employer’s facial-recognition software helps him find his long-lost brother. Indeed, there are a few plot twists that test the boundaries of plausibility.
Where Fallis shines is drawing from his own experience as a twin to fully capture the amazement of brothers meeting for the first time. "We were studying one another’s faces and seeing our own. We were isolated in our own little private fraternal universe. I realized it was almost certainly love — a familial love — that had arrived at breakneck speed."
The brothers join forces on a fascinating family search, opening up some old wounds in the process; on their journey, some harsh truths are revealed.
But Fallis is never far from injecting his trademark humour should things get too heavy. In one instance, Alex sits near a foul-smelling man on a train. His inner dialogue (consistently introspective and amusing) shares that he was near asphyxia and "the four-hour trip passed uneventfully in what felt like eight hours."
In another instance, Alex describes a location: "It was a short drive to the nondescript, low-rise apartment house — I actually can’t describe how nondescript it was. It must’ve been designed and built during a nationwide architects’ strike." Even in the darkest moments, Fallis pulls his characters off the bitter ledge with biting humour.
Alex’s journey of self-discovery covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively: Canada, England, Russia — and a look at the importance of hockey to Canadians — end up providing meaning and context at various points.
For anyone interested in searching for family and healing from traumatic events, Fallis mines a wealth of touching and hilarious treasures, in his inimitably giggle-worthy way — so much so that it would be great to catch up with the brothers in a sequel.
Deborah Bowers is a marketing and communications professional who appreciates a good story and a good laugh.