Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
Coach House Printing, 2018
Republished with permission from OUPSA, 2012
187 pages, paperback, $18.95 CAD, 978-1-988449-29-6
Ages 15+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism
My mother and aunts tell me that my loyalty should only be to my family. Yet their loyalty is only to my brother. No one imagines that I was scarred by what I knew. Never mind that Maipone’s life was devastated by what happened to her.
TW: Discussions of rape, sexual assault, gendered abuse
First published in South Africa back in 2012, This Book Betrays My Brother follows the life of Naledi, a young teenage girl growing up there in the nineties. She loves her brother, Basi, and all things feminine, but the novel’s title is, as you’ve guessed, as much a spoiler as a warning. Basi is the darling of Naledi’s family, boy that he is, and Naledi internalizes her own comparative feminine ordinary-ness without much thought.
If there’s one thing the #MeToo movement has taught us, it’s that abusers are usually people that we know. This Book Betrays My Brother by Kagiso Lesego Molope is a spotlight on this particular notion, one that feels ideal to pick up again now, to remind ourselves why it’s not the abuser’s, but the survivor’s voice that needs amplification.
Having Naledi as the point of view character not only makes Basi’s abusive nature extremely real and heartbreaking, but also heavily characterizes both the apathy of society as well as the fear of women when it comes to speaking. In the climactic scene where Basi sexually assaults Moipone—the girl he’s been courting—Naledi plays a literal standing witness. She’s frozen after, unable to believe that her own brother could be a rapist, and terrified of what would happen if she speaks up. Then she has to watch her own family, and then the rest of society, perform Moipone’s character assassination.
The book masterfully first constructs and then deconstructs Basi’s character. He is an activist, actively going against tradition and his own mother’s prejudices to help his best friend’s mother when she is released from being jailed for her activism. He loves his little sister and is her co-conspirator when she needs him. He is kind and attentive to Maipone when he tries to court her.
But Basi is also the rapist with enough self-awareness to know what he did was wrong. He relies on male entitlement and his powerful parents to ensure that a curtain is dropped on that part of his life. He is the man stuck in a homosocial loop with the male friends in his life, who thinks that raping his girlfriend was a “misunderstanding” on her part, and eventually admits that he’s been taught all his life that women can only want what he—a man—wants. In short, Basi is an allegory for the systemic patriarchy and gendered abuse that is entrenched within our society.
What is interesting about the book is the rather meta way in which it works. As I mentioned above, we get Naledi as the POV character, which of course also means that we do get to know her personality, quirks, likes and dislikes. She is very feminine, enjoys makeup and boys, and spends a lot of her time dreaming about being popular. In contrast, however, Maipone does not get nearly as much screen-time—just as Maipone is an object to Basi, so too does the book treat her as a plot-device for the story to be told. The book thus makes you uncomfortable—as it is meant to—standing in for social structures that allow women to be objectified and dehumanized.
Naledi admits to changing herself at the end of the book, so that her boyfriend wouldn’t have a similar “misunderstanding” with her. And yet, it happens to her anyway, a fact Basi seems to be able to label as rape while ignoring his own misdeeds previously. The level of self-awareness he displays is a clear indication of his ability to recognize consent—and the lack thereof—as well as his inability to take that consent for granted, a lesson that the book tries to teach all of its readers, particularly the male ones.
Couched as it is in teenage hurts and hopes about the world, This Book Betrays My Brother is an exploration of the gendered expectations of life that begs us to ask the question: what is the damn point of conforming to any patriarchal expectation when femininity in all forms will forever be devalued against masculinity?
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.