MY BROTHER’S KEEPER by Tim Powers (BOOK REVIEW)
“Because I’m not like you – I ache at anonymity, insignificance! Oh, I’m sorry, but – you’re content with the fact that a hundred years after you die, nobody will remember Emily Brontë. Or Anne, or Charlotte … but I wanted to live on – I hoped even physically! – for a hundred years, more, and have influence, power, respect…”
Tim Powers is the master of the secret history, weaving the fantastical and the magical into the gaps of recorded history. Powers has previously mixed fantasy with literature of the Romantic period to great effect in The Stress Of Her Regard (1989), in which Keats, Byron and Shelley team up to fight lamia, and its sequel Hide Me Among The Graves (2012), in which Christina Rosetti and her brother Dante Gabriel must fight these supernatural foes. These books are among my all-time favourites, and I am also a huge fan of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), so when I heard that Powers was writing a book about the Brontë sisters fighting werewolves, I was incredibly excited. Fortunately My Brother’s Keeper (2023) easily lived up to my expectations. The novel has all the gonzo action and excitement as well as the keen eye to historical detail that we’ve come to expect from Powers at his best, and is a smart and engaging love letter to these pioneers of the gothic form. My Brother’s Keeper entertained me, told me new things about the Brontë family that I never knew, and made me want to go back and reread the Brontë sisters’ original gothic classics.
As always with Powers, the premise for his secret histories is that he is not allowed to change anything in the historical record, but instead imagines the most fantastical explanations for the weirdness, inconsistencies and gaps in the historical record. This time, Powers draws from the real-life biography of the Brontës, imagining that Patrick Brontë’s immigration from Ireland to England was fuelled by a family curse from a werewolf and malevolent spirit, and that the brooding Byronic anti-heroes who appear in his daughters’ novels were partly inspired by Emily Brontë’s encounter with a mysterious stranger on the moors. The other, historically acknowledged, influence being Branwell Brontë, the sisters’ only brother who went from being their beloved companion and collaborator in constructing their childhood fantasies to an estranged loner because of his lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
In Power’s novel, Patrick managed to temporarily defeat the curse laid on his family by splitting the malevolent spirit, Welsh, from its other half, the monstrous beast that now lies buried under his parish church in Howarth, without its head. But unbeknownst to him, Welsh has been haunting Branwell all his life and preparing him for possession. As children, Welsh convinces Branwell to lead Emily and Anne in making a blood pact, which protects them from the parasitic ghosts that led to the death of their mother Maria and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, but promises them in service to Welsh and his unearthly twin. Years later, during Branwell’s trip to London to make his fortune, where he meets with failure for the first time and drowns his sorrows in booze, leading to his lifelong alcoholism, he is accosted by members of a werewolf cult who worship Welsh and his twin and are working to bring the two together again. Offering him the fame and fortune he can feel slipping away from him, Branwell agrees to be baptized into their service. Emily meanwhile encounters a wounded stranger on the moors, the mysterious and gruff Alcuin Curzon, who is part of a secret society of repentant werewolves who are fighting the evil werewolf cult. Emily must work with Curzon and her sisters in order to prevent her brother from unleashing a terrible evil, and perhaps save his weak and battered soul, before Welsh reunites with his twin and calls in the Brontës’ debts.
As always, Powers makes it look easy, effortlessly weaving this complicated supernatural plot into the real life history of the Brontë family, whilst alluding to the Brontë’s pioneering gothic fiction. Emily is the main viewpoint character, and as is only fitting Wuthering Heights is the central reference point. Powers conjures up Emily’s windswept and haunted moors, delving deeper into the supernatural implications hinted at in the original novel with verve and imagination. But there are also some wonderful shoutouts to the other Brontë works, noticeably Jane Eyre’s flight through the moors from Thornfield Hall in Charlotte’s book, and in Branwell’s drunken bouts the trials of Helen Graham living with the drunken wastrel Arthur Huntingdon from Anne’s. Powers beautifully captures the characters of each of the Brontë sisters – Emily’s bold and fearless nature as she rolls up her sleeves to deal with the supernatural, Charlotte’s role in the family as the sensible surrogate mother, Anne’s empathy and enthusiasm. All of them positively jump off the page, and it’s a joy to see them take on the role of the gothic heroines they wrote of. Powers also sensitively draws Branwell’s character. We are constantly aware of his weaknesses and foibles, and in many ways he is defined by his selfishness and his inability to face the consequences of his own decisions. Yet at the same time, underneath it all we can see the remainders of the sensitive and imaginative boy that his sisters loved so much, making his fall from grace all the more tragic.
My Brother’s Keeper is Powers doing what he does best, a glorious blend of supernatural fantasy with historical reality and literary references that immediately puts one in mind of his best work. It’s a joy to see him having so much fun, and to spend time with the Brontë sisters as characters, vicariously enjoying them exploring the gothic fantasies that they wrote of so convincingly. A must for fans of Powers’ unique approach to fantasy, and of the Brontë sisters’ wild imaginations.
My Brother’s Keeper is available now. Order your copy from Bookshop.org