“The Night Brother” by Rosie Garland – guest review

Rosie Garland’s latest novel, The Night Brother, is out now in paperback. Guest reviewer Dr Claire Nally (Northumbria University) looks at why the book is a unique journey into late-Victorian and Edwardian Manchester…

Rosie Garland might be best known to goths as singer with The March Violets, or perhaps because of her cabaret and spoken word alter-ego, Rosie Lugosi, Lesbian Vampire Queen. However, Garland is also an accomplished prose writer, with her first novel, The Palace of Curiosities (2013) followed by Vixen (2014). Both of these historical novels play with magic realism, gender non-conformity and sexual difference, so in this respect, Garland’s latest novel, The Night Brother (2017) follows in a similar pattern.

Previous reviews of Garland’s work have established a flattering comparison with Angela Carter, and it is easy to see why, given that Garland’s historical fiction also reflects upon subjects like gender, sexuality, and otherness. However, such a comparison also deflects from the uniqueness of the author’s voice. In The Night Brother, which is a split narrative from the perspective of two characters – Gnome and Edie – the subtle nuances of language are obvious. We meet Gnome as an adolescent boy, and his narrative voice is swaggering, informal, and full of mild billingsgate, braggadocio and slang. He is not, however, entirely without sympathy. Confined to a night-time world of street pedlars, city markets, fairs, and the friendship of prostitutes, his world-view is clearly one of survival.

Edie is an entirely different specimen, and the prose carefully mirrors her character. Edie’s language is more tentative, and formal in register, lyrical and literary in style. This is not to say she is a pushover: she takes great delight in telling a drunk in her mother’s pub to ‘Get your filthy paws off me’ when his hands wander up her skirt, telling him that she will grab his ‘wizened meat and two veg and saw off the whole damned lot.’ In such instances, we also have a tantalising glimpse into the crux of the story, that Edie and Gnome have more in common than familial bonds.

Rosie Garland, Manchester Histories Festival at Manchester Art Gallery, photo by Paul Sherlock

Edie is drawn into the counterculture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through her friendship with Guy Heywood, who introduces her to the underground Manchester queer scene, complete with police raids, intolerance and (by necessity) dual identities ­– the novel opens in 1894, but a year before Oscar Wilde’s high-profile arrest for gross indecency. These queer narratives are often recovered by Neo-Victorian writers (think Sarah Waters as an obvious example), but Garland is also doing something subtly different.

Edie’s participation in the suffrage movement, through her friend Abigail Hargreaves, takes her to the heart of civil unrest in the period: she attends a speech by Mary Gawthorpe (suffragette, trade unionist and editor) in Albert Square only to become embroiled in scenes of police brutality and riot. These sections of the novel are precisely detailed, and obviously penned by a long-time resident of the city. The painstaking geography of the novel is easily verifiable in all its multitudinous character: the bustle of Deansgate, the Oxford Road corridor and the ‘fortunate young ladies attending Owen’s College’, Manchester Museum, and thence to the leafy quiet of the suburbs. However, at the heart of the narrative is also a queer love story – Edie’s growing relationship with Abigail is subtly and sympathetically handled, without any of the sensationalism we may associate with aspects of Neo-Victorian fiction.

The ‘secret’ at the heart of the story places the book in the magic realist tradition – insofar as it uses an essentially realist narrative arc (with hints of the coming-of-age bildungsroman tradition) but also participates in fantastical elements which we are invited to accept as an everyday part of the world. This seems to be a political gesture as well as an aesthetic decision: we should accept Edie and Gnome’s complex identities as part of human diversity, as much as it is important to do the same for sexual difference.

Garland’s work is literary and erudite, but despite its intellectualism, it is also a gripping yarn, a political polemic about rights and freedoms for men, women and those in-between, and a compelling but affectionate historical portrayal of Mancunian life.

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland is out now in paperback from The Borough Press (HarperCollins), £8.99: https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008166137/the-night-brother/

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