BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Older Brother by Mahir Guven, translated by Tina Kover [in Shelf Awareness]

Two brothers. Two narrators. Two type fonts: serif for “The Older Brother” chapters; sans serif for “The Younger Brother.” Their family has shrunk as Mahir Guven’s debut, Older Brother, begins: “…there’s only two of us left,” the older brother reveals, referring to their acerbic father and himself. The younger brother “has f**ked off to the middle of the desert,” their mother is dead, her mother also dead, the father’s mother in a nursing home. Once upon a time, the father was an international student from Syria who fell in love with a local French (Breton, specifically) student; they married and had two sons. Some three decades later, the father, despite his (unspecified) doctorate, is a disgruntled taxi driver, hoping to soon retire after 20-plus years navigating Paris streets. That his older son drives for Uber is nothing short of betrayal. The younger brother, once a hospital nurse and convinced “the world was calling out to [him] for help,” answered by volunteering with a medical NGO to serve in their ancestral Syrian homeland – and disappeared. After three silent years, the younger brother returns, burdened more with disturbing questions than believable answers.

Awarded the 2018 Prix Goncourt for a debut novel and translated by PEN Translation Prize finalist Tina Kover, Older Brother affectingly mines Guven’s own experiences of being stateless, as the French-born son of Turkish and Iraqi refugees. His dual protagonists are also perennial outsiders, their relentlessly questioned status magnified in a Paris still nervous after terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan. Despite such gravity, Guven is a sly, ingenious storyteller, infusing black humor and biting wit throughout. His epilogue proves to be a jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand.

Discover: Two Parisian brothers of a Syrian father and French mother choose diverging paths in one of the most astute international debuts of the year.

Review: “Fiction,” Shelf Awareness, November 15, 2019

Readers: Adult

Published: 2017 (France), 2019 (United States)


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