Review: “The Good Brother,” E.L. Chen

Pros: So damn emotional
Cons: Depressing as hell
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve never had such a mixed view of a book before. E.L. Chen’s The Good Brother is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most terrible books I’ve ever read. I picked it up as part of a bundle of books advertised as horror; if I’d known what the book was really like, to be honest, I would never have read it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tori is a young Chinese-Canadian woman who works at a book store. It’s Ghost Month, and she’s being haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, Seymour, as well as the ghosts of Vicky, her 17-year-old self, and Mui-Mui, her 11-year-old self. She’s suddenly become unable to use her right arm, and sometimes Seymour can control it, causing her to do things that frighten or embarrass her. She can’t figure out what the three ghosts want, but they’re making her life miserable. She looks to the handsome young Egan, the new guy at work, to pick up her mood, but Seymour can sabotage even that. Or maybe she’s sabotaging it on her own?

The first three-quarters of the book are depressing in the most awful way. Embarrassing things happen. People who care about Tori start looking down on her. She ends up humiliated in front of friends and strangers alike. Her job starts to go badly. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t put the book down. It’s incredibly well-written–actually, that’s part of what makes it so hard to read. It’s impossible not to feel the depression and malaise and embarrassment and humiliation and frustration. (Here’s where I include a content warning for depression and suicide.) If I’d known this is what the book was like, I wouldn’t have read it. I really did find the details of Chinese culture, and Ghost Month, fascinating. The family dynamics are engrossing. But I think you need to have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you want to read this book.

The last quarter of the book is totally engrossing, particularly as Tori starts to find out some things she didn’t know about Seymour. The events are riveting. But god, so hard to read.

If you’re up to it–if you’ve read this far and still think you might be interested–absolutely give it a read. The quality of the writing is pretty stunning. But it isn’t for everyone, and I’d hate for someone to stumble across it when they aren’t up to it. It’s a heart-shattering read, and way too intense and real in its depiction of how a life can go wrong.

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