When the Family Falls Apart


Of all the sibling configurations sitting at the crowded dinner table of Western literature, the one that arguably receives the least amount of attention is that of brother and sister. Fiction shelves are crammed with competing brothers and vying sisters, as well as endless combinations of squabbling trios and embittered foursomes in which a brother and a sister sit within shin-kicking distance amid the bickering family cluster. But what about the peculiarly fraught, hard-to-classify dynamic of the boy and girl dyad, two siblings of different genders raised under like conditions but so often saddled with wildly divergent expectations? You’d have to go back to the Greeks, to overwrought Antigone, for a noble case of sister-brother sacrifice or to fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” for aspirational brother-sister cooperation.

Richard Mirabella’s debut novel, “Brother & Sister Enter the Forest,” is an eerie, psychologically devastating novel by any measure, but it’s Mirabella’s careful, emotionally honest rendering of the ever-shifting relationship between older brother, Justin, and younger sister, Willa, that marks this book as a revelation.

Justin is lost. In his 30s, he’s been adrift for his entire adult life, battling bouts of alcoholism, estranged from an overbearing mother, prone to rash acts and often lacking any fixed address. When he shows up at his sister’s apartment asking for help after almost a year of no contact, Willa, a hospital nurse with her own emotional baggage, treats him like a ticking time bomb, keeping her distance even as she invites him in. Slowly, through chapters that oscillate between the present and the past, the book reveals that Justin survived a horrific trauma in his teens that has left him scarred, isolated and emotionally volatile. Even at their closest, Justin holds parts of himself from Willa. “He had kept things from her, gave her just enough information.” Later chapters flash-forward to Justin’s attempts at a stable romance with a younger man and Willa’s efforts to hold onto a brother who prefers to stay lost, trying to track him down once he vanishes again from her life.

The scenes of Justin’s and Willa’s lives are presented out of sequence, and in arranging them so, Mirabella shuns comforting dramatic resolutions and predictable redemptive plot turns. Instead, we are thrown into a more emotional narrative flow, where siblings bond at one moment only to clash the next, grow toward each other only to pull apart, love each other dearly yet act like adversaries within the same scene.

In her spare time off from the hospital, Willa works on miniature dioramas, recreating scenes from her brother’s early life. By Willa’s own admission, this obsession stems from “a desire to shrink the world and make it manageable.”

As literary devices go, it’s a rather blinking symbol of the way these characters remain perpetually stuck in place. But I would proffer that the book’s atmosphere is less like a diorama and more akin to a snow globe. Willa and Justin exist in their own oppressive bubble of loss and dread, which imbues the narrative with a hopeless claustrophobia, like two captives who have given up looking for escape. This unrelenting mood is primarily induced by Willa and Justin’s wild passivity. Despite the action verb in the book title, this brother and sister are fascinatingly, and often frustratingly, inert. They continually fail to start projects, unpack boxes, clean up messes, run from danger or text others back.

Such stasis, though, proves a brilliant contrast for the times when Mirabella does shake up their world. When a sudden and violent act erupts — a push at a wedding, a head slammed on the sidewalk, a punch in the face — it jolts both the characters and the readers out of the numbness. Perhaps the biggest shock of all, though, is reserved for the rare moments when these siblings do find a way to connect. In one astonishing scene, it’s as simple and explosive as Willa reaching out to take her brother’s hand.

Christopher Bollen is the author of five novels. His latest is “The Lost Americans.”

BROTHER & SISTER ENTER THE FOREST | By Richard Mirabella | 278 pp. | Catapult | $27

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