This book was winner of a Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction way back in the very early 80’s. I’ve only just read it, and yet the catchy unforgettable title, has been with me since the mid 90’s. My first book group read ‘The Travelling Hornplayer’ by Barbara Trapido and everyone kept saying, you really should read ‘Brother of the more famous Jack’. Well, now I have.
It is the story of Katherine who is interviewed by Jacob Goldman ‘a powerful left-wing philosopher up from the east end’ for a place at a London university in his Philosophy course – and how she becomes involved with his family. Indeed, how Jacob really takes Katherine under his wing so to speak. My book group agreed, as we talked about this book, that this sort of special relationship between a professor and his student, is probably nowadays less likely (e.g. would face more scrutiny). And yet, even though you sense Jacob’s infatuation with Katherine, indeed his whole family’s infatuation with her and her with them, it feels very normal. The idea that another family other than your own can change the course of your life is very appealing.
Katherine and the Goldman family are the stuff of fiction, of course they are. Does anybody in the antipodes really know a family like the Goldmans and the very fecund Jane, wife to Jonathan, not to mention their precocious off-spring? Perhaps… it doesn’t matter. I loved them. I’d forgotten how satisfying a novel can be, and how delicious it is to be lost in another family, and to not want a book to end. Perhaps I’ve been reading to review too frequently recently, and this has spoiled my enjoyment. Reading ‘Brother of the more Famous Jack’ was for pure pleasure and for the fun of discussion with one of my book groups. I imagined they would all love it like I did. And for the most part this was true, but one of my book group friends prefers non-fiction, and she usually gives novels about the first chapter to grab her, or she abandons them. She is English, she is discerning, and she is well read. Ah, I imagined, she will love this novel. Not so, she only got to page 50 and hated all of the characters, especially, as far as she was concerned the unbelievable Katherine, and too, the ghastly Goldmans – she didn’t believe in them and she certainly didn’t like them.
Ah, but I really loved them, even if I didn’t always like them. This is what a good writer does. She (or he) persuades you to believe in their characters, even if only for the 200 or so pages of their existence. Somehow, with her first novel Barbara Trapido does this remarkably. Mostly I found the characters hugely endearing (even when annoying) and the conversations and insights, at times, acutely funny. You sense that Trapido knows the world she is writing of, extremely well. The whole shambolic academic snobbery, layers within layers; the English class system. Trapido, it says, was born and educated in South Africa but now (1982) lives in Oxford. I sense she is in this regard, both an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ making her observations so acutely funny.
Laugh out loud examples (for me) as Katherine negotiates her new world and new perspectives, aware of the differences between herself and the Goldman’s are:
Katherine is being seduced by an old friend of the Goldman’s, John Millet. “I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling his house guest an old faggot.”
Katherine in a relationship with Jacob Goldman’s son, Roger…
“I painted disloyal portraits for him of my mother in her emerald crimplene trouser-suit, reclining in her fringed garden seat with the latest Nevil Shute. I told him that my uncle collected George Formby records.”
“You wouldn’t know he was Jewish,’ my mother said, ‘would you?’ She said this by way of complimenting me on the quality of male I had at last reassured her by pulling in.
And, when Roger heads to Africa to teach in a country high school, and Katherine’s mother says this:
“I’ve got nothing against Jews,’ she said. “It’s such a pity he has to be in Africa when you could do with his company. Aren’t there enough blacks for him in England?’
And then too there is the very sad stuff when Katherine leaves the Goldman family to live in Europe and meets the handsome feckless, Italian, Michele – “Michele didn’t drive a Fiat. He drove an open-topped MG. This was not because he was an Anglophile – far from it – but because he was an oddball who liked to be different. It was a piece of understated showing-off which I found most appealing.” Michele offers her a Mink coat in exchange for an abortion. Katherine becomes a mother, briefly.
And then she returns to the Goldman family, altered, grown-up, sad, and they too have changed or has just her perspective of them altered?
We find out nearer the end, why Jane the lovely fecund Jane, keeps having babies. We see Roger in a new light and we see Katherine emerging as a new sort of women, one who wants to work (hand-knitting garments) to help support her novelist husband. Trapido in this novel explores the role of the modern women; Jane and all her babies (because she can afford it!); Katherine who plans to run her own business, and Rosie, the almost overlooked daughter of Jane who marries right outside the family ‘genre’ so to speak, because she recognises she doesn’t have the brains or intellect which her family (snobbishly) venerate.
And in the end, it’s just such a jolly good read, which is what a good book should be.