Book Review: We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle, part 1

My book group decided to read We Never Talk About My Brother, a short story collection by Peter S. Beagle, which is my first foray into the inimitable Peter S. Beagle, and I hope it shall not be the last. This was such an interesting short story collection! It’s eclectic, yet unified with the idea of events being just beyond reality at times. It’s generally not outrageous or egregious in its fantasy, but its fantastic elements are simply woven into the stories using a subtlety that is really very impressive. What I love about short stories is what I like about film. I can get a whole story, start to finish, in one sitting. No (or very few) breaks, no interruptions, just a quick dollop of immersion into a new world.

This is more of a set of musings on each story. Take them as bait to draw you into Peter S. Beagle’s rich prose.

1. “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”

This was a fantastic first story in the collection. I was moved by each of the characters in turn. The narrator’s Uncle Chaim, a painter, is visited by an angel who wants to be his muse. However, there may be more to this than an artistic altruistic angel.

While there was certainly a bit of mythology about angels in the story, I felt that it was really about faith. Uncle Chaim just trusted the angel–not immediately, but eventually. So did the narrator; also, when the Rabbi says, “I never knew I didn’t believe in angels until I saw you.” It’s a really interesting account of people who seem to have a small smidge of faith, even though it was mostly lost or forgotten, thrust into a situation where their beliefs (or the remnants of those beliefs) have become real.

The anticipation and pacing is exceedingly well developed. For awhile, it was nice and leisurely: just a man painting an angel. Then it sped up and I couldn’t stop. Peter S. Beagle does an amazing job of drawing me in and keeping me hooked. It’s not high fantasy, but our world. Everything is relatable. His voice is also very solid, yet shifting (if that makes sense…). I could hear each character so clearly. The utilization of Yiddish added a depth that I really appreciated, as well as the different syntax for Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke.

Way to hook me, PSB…

2. “We Never Talk About My Brother”

I loved this story. From the outset I was impressed with the voice. It was so distinct from the previous story–more conversational in tone.

Our narrator has a brother who, it turns out, might just be the angel of death. I think the plot was very interesting and just dark enough. I felt just enough of an ominous vibe from Esau, without feeling like he was off twirling his mustache and cackling off to the side. I think the idea that Jacob is Esau’s counterbalance was a good one, and that Esau isn’t as much of a threat as he might seem.

It brings up some deeper questions, such as fate, which always interests me. Was Esau the only one? Who was pulling the strings? Were there any strings to pull? If there is someone else in charge, was what Esau did wrong? I thought it was a compelling story.

3. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri”

This is a melancholy tale through and through. It is a love story, and a story of the lengths to which love can go–even on a subconscious level–to fulfill the most hidden desires of the lover. It’s terribly tragic, though just, in the end.

I love the repeated line, “She loved me when she was an otter.” It’s a beautiful thing, yet sad when you consider where the story goes.

The first line sets the stage immediately, drawing me in so subtly that I didn’t realize its significance until much later.

4. “King Pelles the Sure”

I was really interested in this story, though I wasn’t blown away by it. It’s an anti-war allegory and cautionary tale. Mainly, the comparisons to Machiavelli are kind of stunning–if he was interpreted incorrectly. Machiavelli is all about being prepared for war, taking a hard, somewhat cynical look at the reality of political life, and that you need to protect your nation and yourself from possible attack. However, it’s not about winning glory or fighting just to fight, but it’s about practicality.

King Pelles seems to have dabbled his toes in some of that thinking and gotten it into his head that preparation means action. Obviously, it’s also a metaphor for people going to war for stupid reasons and the disastrous consequences that ensue.

And so it goes…

5. “The Last and Only, Or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French”

I felt that this was only a little departure from “King Pelles the Sure,” but I liked it just the same. This is a really interesting and sad look at a relationship’s dissolution over time–not from the fighting or infidelity, but literally growing apart. It’s really quite sad.

Furthermore, as one of the people in my book club pointed out: “On a larger stage, this story is about national identity. What makes an American an American? What makes a Frenchman a Frenchman? Does it matter anymore in this globalize society?”

It also made me wonder what the reverse might be: if some Frenchman slowly metamorphosed into an American. I think it would be a really interesting thing to see…


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