Extract: My Brother by Karin Smirnoff | Pushkin Press

Extract: My Brother by Karin Smirnoff

Posted 9th March 2021

My Brother by Karim Smirnoff is a taut, suspenseful novel of hidden family secrets, abuse, trauma and resilience. It follows Jana as she returns to her family home in the remote rural north of Sweden, where she unravels the horrific experiences of her childhood. Alive with the brutality and beauty of the landscape, it’s the story of a homecoming without a home: a story of forgiveness.

In this extract, Jana has returned home to find her brother Bror drinking himself into an early grave, the family farm falling apart around him, memories of their childhood bearing down on both of them.

We were drinking whisky in bror’s kitchen. Or, not really. Bror drank whisky and I drank tea. He had lit a fire on the hearth. I did my best not to see the dirt and disorder. We were born just a few minutes apart and are alike in many ways. Especially in how we look. We are thin and gingery, with straggly unpigmented hair. We are so bleakly unremarkable that nobody used to remember either of us as somebody. Only as the twins.

Has something happened that made you come here he asked.

Nothing special I said my mind on the paintings in the bestroom. I had nothing to do over easter that’s all. It had grown late. We went for a walk with the elkhound. By now the sky was clear and starry once more. The mutt tugged us along at a brisk pace. The thermometer had dropped to minus twelve and the snow was creaking underfoot. Past göranbäckström’s there were no more streetlamps but the light of the snow and the stars was enough.

We talked about what had happened here. Who had died. Who had fallen ill. About hunting ptarmigans in the hills and about a neighbour’s bitch that had been successfully mated. The kind of things you talk about in villages like smalånger. We did not touch on why emelie had left him or why our childhood home was decaying.

For a second night I slept in a pullout bed. Too tired to undress, I used my coat as a blanket and fell asleep instantly.

In the morning I put on rubber gloves, filled a bucket with soapy water and systematically worked my way through room after room. That afternoon, there was a pile of rubbish bags on the steps. Bags full of beer cans pizza cartons dead potted plants newspapers food long past its best empty dog food cans bottles of spirits broken ornaments cracked picture frames and a whole lot of women’s clothes slashed to ribbons.

Everyone is good at something or so the saying goes. It pleased me to see the veined wood of the soapy boards and the glowing lime paint of the wooden cladding. It pleased me when boiling hot water dissolved grease vomit and other substances that had settled into a hard crust over tiling and workbench in fridges and the large larder. It even pleased me to see the washing spin as the machine sloshed months maybe years of dirt from sheets curtains mats clothes and in the end to hang all these things up in the drying cupboard. Cleaning was my way of dealing with my brother’s anguish as well as my own. A bit like playing tetris. The pieces fell into place and other thoughts I might have attempted were kept at bay.

Bror sat on the kitchen sofa, eyeing me indifferently. He kept swigging bottled beer. When one bottle was empty he got another one from the larder. Maybe I was too late.

I heard you slept over at eskilbrännström’s he said.

You mean at john’s I countered hoping he would say more but he just shut his taciturn mouth tight and carried on staring out into the dangerous infinity.

I sat down next to him. Took the bottle from him and drank a mouthful of the tepid beer.

Do you know john I asked.

Sure everybody knows him bror replied.

I don’t I said.

He hasn’t been living there for all that long bror said.

Could be I said and then reconnected with reality. You have no food in the house. We must go shopping.

He leaned against me and if I hadn’t known my brother so well I might have thought he was crying.

He smelled badly of grief and sweat. I put my arm around him and stroked his hair as I had done in the past. It will be all right I said. It will be all right.

My Brother by Karin Smirnoff (tr. Anna Paterson) is out now.