By Ania Ahlborn
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Date: September 29, 2015
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Brother by Ania Ahlborn is easily the most disturbing book I have read this year. It fits into a personal reading category I call “Loved and Hated” sitting comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably, with books like We Need to Talk about Kevin and American Psycho. These perpetrators of extreme angst immerses us into the story yet makes us very uncomfortable in the idea that we can even identify with the topic and the emotions, or lack of, in the characters. The result is a surreal experience that teaches us something about human nature. It is often something we may not have wanted to know.
At the age of 19, Michael is the youngest boy in the Morrow family. His brother Reb is 26. The Morrows live in rural West Virginia isolated from others and from the small nearby town of Dahlia. But Michael does not feel like he is part of his family. He tries to connect with them even when suffering abuse from all of the family members particularly his brother Reb. He especially cannot help feeling disconnected and guilty about his family’s primary activity; abducting young women, torturing them and slaughtering them.
Ahlborn places us into this horrific scenario immediately. She hits us over the head in the first chapter with the horror of the family’s actions. I do not know what disturbed me the most, the description of the atrocities or the fact that I was starting to like and empathize with Michael. For even as he plays his role we instantly know through the author’s skilled prose that Michael is different. Why he is different is the cornerstone to the success of this novel and Ahlborn slowly but steadily reveals this.
Yes, this novel is disturbing yet it is surprising just how few segments of gore and violence are actually in the book. Much of it is suggested or “off screen” so to speak, yet the reader still feels like they have been put through a wringer. The explicit horrors are spread out and work in the idea that when they happen, they hit you fast. However, most of the shock value is in how natural the members of the Morrow family seem in their house of horrors. Michael is the most emphatic of them. Reb is the most bitter and dangerous. He is the result of an abusive family whose anger often is played out toward the next most vulnerable member and then passed down. How Reb’s pent-up anger is finally displayed reveals a deceptively brilliant form of evil. There is also the mother, the father, and two sisters who play lesser but essential roles, each showing different attributes of severe dysfunction in this immensely dysfunctional family.
When Michael meets a young girl who works in a music store in Dahlia, he begins to think there is more in life for him. He begins to wonder if there is a possibility of leaving his family and going out into the world. But in the time honored literary depiction of dysfunctional families this can never be good. In Brother, we get the granddaddy of “can never be good” as the author weaves an exceptional but revolting series of twists and turns.
Not too long ago. I read and reviewed Ahlborn’s last novel, Within These Walls, a quietly scary haunted house story with well developed characters and a strong psychological sense of suspense. There is nothing supernatural about Brother, yet the author still maintains that skillful development of her protagonists while she places the reader in a world that is likely impossible for them to imagine as being real life. Above all else, Brother is a fictional psychological study of a sociopathic family and extreme psychopathology. With each book, Ahlborn is becoming the lead dispenser of psychological horror. Her style can be very subtle yet there is nothing subtle about the terrors of the Morrow family. In Brother, Ahlborn finds her own terrifying niche in horror literature. You may cringe from the telling of this story but you will be hooked right down to the shocking end.