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Ross-shire Journal book review of a funny, desperately sad, story of two brothers

By Margaret Chrystall

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O Brother by John Niven.
O Brother by John Niven.

O Brother by John Niven (Canongate, £18.99).

Funny, desperately sad, the story of two brothers told by the one who survives, is also a puzzle and a cry of pain from the writer John Niven after his brother Gary – nickname Shades –took his own life.

But to tell the story, the fiction and scriptwriter turns for the first time to non-fiction with O Brother, this week's Star Read.

Interweaving the phases of his own life – from wannabe rock star to university student to writer – into the troubles and failures that stall Gary's, John the brother tries to understand as his brother's life veers off into drugs, prison. Inevitably there are recriminations. Gary's money worries that John could have solved...

He imagines if he had said: "Don't sell your golf clubs, Shades. How much do you need?"

But as he puts it: "Maybe, maybe, maybe The Chernobyl of the soul. I am impressed all over again by the half-life of suicide, by its power to go on and on and on. The book (the whodunnit? Or rather the whydunnit) with the last page torn out."

But there's no cheating, no sentimental rewriting of history, the book faces the reality of a struggle with a difficult, imperfect life – and a family's hard truth to face. They couldn't be there all the time and for that split-second decision their bold, impulsive, heroic, crazy, beloved Gary took.

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