I have never read anything else by Peter S. Beagle.
Just want to make that clear, since I know that in some corners of the fantasyscape, he is a Big Deal. He’s Known. Renowned, even. So this little collection of short stories of his was probably met with squeals of glee from fans the world over when it was published (back in 2009, because I am 6 years behind on my to-read list these days). I was not one of those people.
But I might be, some day.
We Never Talk About My Brother starts off on a very good note: it has a foreword by Charles de Lint. He talks about how Beagle is one of the first writers he, as a reader, was aware of who wrote fantasy set in our world. Of course, that is now one of de Lint’s major claims to fame, so he knows what he’s talking about. And he was totally right. I might even go so far as to say that, clause for clause, Beagle is actually more of a wordsmith than de Lint.
I don’t really want to wade into the false dichotomy of literary versus genre fiction. But Beagle verily shatters the notion of such a dichotomy; he is a literary fantasy writer, and if your brain explodes at such a notion, then read not this book. Each story is crafted with the skill of Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Beagle writes about people like us, or like people we might know, who happen to have experiences a little out of the ordinary. (Another loaded term I could throw out there, if I cared to, might be magical realism—but I don’t care to do that. No, sir, I do not.)
I have, in the past, done that thing where one goes through each story in the anthology and reviews it separately. It is a sensible though naive approach to reviewing anthologies, and it would certainly be easy to accomplish for one with nine stories in it. Yet this approach ignores the fact that some stories are disproportionately better than others—and I mean that from an entirely subjective sense; a story might speak to me here even if another thinks it is awful.
So let me highlight the ones I really, really liked.
The titular “We Never Talk About My Brother,” which is the second tale, is fantastic. Beagle takes a brilliant central idea and unspools it layer by layer until he reaches the core nugget that makes it not just fantasy but somewhat unsettling, verging upon but not quite breaching that tenuous veil between fantasy and horror. This is a story of psychological warfare on a Biblical level.
Likewise, “The Stickball Witch,” has a similar first-person perspective with a moral at the end that left me both entertained and thoughtful. It reminded me quite a bit of an episode of Recess—I don’t think this was intentional on Beagle’s part, but sometimes the best associations aren’t.
I was actually surprised by how much I liked “By Moonlight,” even though it hews closer to many of the standard tropes about faeries. This is probably thanks to Beagle’s great style; he’s a consummate teller of stories by storytellers.
I think all the stories here are good in one way or another, though I didn’t particularly like “The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French,” and because poetry is not my thing, “The Unicorn Tapestries” left me pretty numb. I suspect there are plenty who will call these their favourites, though.
I’m at a loss to draw deeper comparisons between the stories or talk subtext here. I would like to read more of Beagle’s work before I try that. That’s probably the main takeaway from this review: enjoyed the book, will read more. Hopefully it won’t take me six years this time.