A sensitive portrayal of the often complex relationship between siblings that asks the question – what happens when disaster strikes a fractured, but deeply held, relationship?
Published: 2015 by Sourcebooks (2012 edition published by Fremantle Press as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot with ISBN 9781922089144)
Format: Paperback, 336 pp
There is a special kind of tension that belongs solely to the sibling relationship.
Unlike a friend, a sibling is not chosen; there is no guarantee of shared interests or sensibilities. It is a familial relationship, but the love is not entirely unconditional; the gulf between parental love and sibling love is vast. And yet – there is much shared history, and there is shared blood. It is a heady mix, and one that is perfect fodder for fiction – even more so when the characters are not just siblings, but identical twins – which is how we meet William and Charlie, the chief protagonists in Whiskey and Charlie.
In their early years, the brothers are tight. Their lives revolve around their walkie talkies, through which they play at being cops and robbers, private detectives and secret agents. It’s all ‘Roger,’ and ‘Over and out’, and ‘Niner’, until a neighbour introduces them to NATO’s phonetic alphabet. It is not long before William is calling himself ‘Whiskey’
But then puberty hits. The boys migrate from England to Australia and Charlie begins to resent his brother’s easy confidence.
‘Charlie had been kidding himself, thinking things could be different in Australia. Whiskey was a character. He possessed a quality Charlie had missed out on, a quality that made people want to be around him. He was Whiskey Ferns, fresh off the boat, and Charlie bet there wasn’t a single student in the school who didn’t know his name.’
Through their twenties, the twins’ relationship continues to disintegrate until, by the age of 32, they are no longer speaking. Then tragedy strikes. Whiskey suffers a multitude of injuries in an accident, leaving him in a coma, and Charlie, facing the distinct possibility that he will never have the chance to make amends with his twin.
Told entirely from Charlie’s point of view, there is an engrossing quality to this story. The ‘flashback’ structure gives a sense of completeness to the tale; it rounds out the characters, while also maintaining narrative tension.
The use of the phonetic alphabet as a structural device (the chapters are named ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’, ‘Charlie’ etc) could have come across as gimmicky in the hands of some authors but Annabel Smith uses the device to solid effect, and the chapter headings remind us of the bond the brother’s once shared.
In some senses, Charlie is a frustrating character. He is slightly disastrous in both his professional and personal life; the once sensitive and thoughtful little boy seems to have developed into a stubbornly passive young man – content to revel in victim-hood by blaming his brother for his own failures. Thankfully, Whiskey’s accident forces Charlie into greater self-examination.
‘It was only now that Whiskey was in a situation no one could envy, now that just being able to breathe and eat and talk for himself, Charlie had everything Whiskey could ever really want, that Charlie could see things clearly.’
What Charlie learns, is that memory is subjective, and so is perception; in potentially losing his brother, Charlie realises that he hasn’t actually tried to understand him, nor understand his own role in the breakdown of the relationship.
These are salutary lessons, and they are handled without an overbearing sense of sentimentality; Smith’s restraint, particularly in some of the more emotional scenes, is commendable.
Though it does not overwhelm the narrative, there is evidence of detailed research into acquired brain injury, which in itself makes for interesting reading; the figures around the recovery rate from coma are quite staggering.
If you’re lucky enough to have a brother or sister, you’ll want to go hug them after reading this book, for after all is said and done, a sibling is a sibling for life.
About the Author:
Annabel Smith is the author of The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards.
She has been writer-in-residence at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University.
My copy of Whiskey and Charlie was supplied by Net Galley.
For teaching notes, excerpts and to buy the book, go to Sourcebooks or Fremantle Press