by Nathan Leslie
Aqueous Books, 2014
323 pages, $17
Reviewed by Brooke Granquist
Nathan Leslie’s Sibs collection, as the title suggests, embraces the relationship between brothers and sisters. The stories that make up the collection are littered with love, lust, compassion, jealousy, secrets, and betrayal.
From tight-knit to at-war and set in different corners of America, Leslie encapsulates the family dynamic across the country on various levels, making the stories easily relatable. This fast-paced collection kept me turning the pages as my emotions ran wild. Even in the states of horror and disbelief, I was compelled to keep reading, lost in the world of the sibs.
Two of the stories I found to be both haunting and entrancing were “Burlap” and “A Day in the Park.” “Burlap,” written from the viewpoint of a child, demonstrated a brother and sister who stick together through thick and thin. While the brother may be naïve, the sister keeps him close to her side. The pace is quick, much like the water described in the piece:
It took both of us to carry the bag, and the water was fast and cold. I started shivering. The farther I walked the colder I got. We walked to our necks and let go of the bag […]
“This is the way it should always be,” she says.
It is moments like this where Leslie’s prose shines. Short, simplistic sentences describe what was happening: nothing more, nothing less—mimicking a child’s speech without detracting from the story. The sentences flow easily from one to the next and send goose-bumps up the arms as the realization of what just occurred is beautifully wrapped up in the sister’s final statement of the piece and emphasizes a bond formed by secrets between the siblings.
The twenty-one stories in this collection feature a cast of characters that display Leslie’s talent for creating individual and new stories and characters. These vivid characters range from sisters at a hippie commune in the 1970s (“Joy Pasture”) to Davey having a brand new baby brother (“The Worm”). Rather than telling his audience what each character is like, Leslie paints a picture through actions, thoughts, and dialogue, allowing the reader to experience each character how they perceive them, and, like I already mentioned, he writes in a believable viewpoint for each of these characters.
In “Backsliding” we see this believable characterization. Written about two sisters while one struggles with shopaholic tendencies, the sister who takes on the role of the ‘fixer’ narrates:
My sister calls and says she has something to give me. Oh Lord, I think. Ten minutes later she’s at my front door. Stole. Two-inch heels […] she holds a red Macy’s bag. Here we go again.
Leslie’s audience can feel the frustration and tenseness that is occurring between the two characters. While the title of this piece suggests this isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, time this has happened, the narrator confirms it with her thoughts.
Another example of the threats, domestic violence, and, ultimately, a big brother protecting his little sister that Leslie does well is “The Good Man.” The hero of this story is a step-sibling that took on the role of a defender. Leslie writes in a way that the damsel in distress (the narrator) could be either truly fragile in the eyes of the audience or a hated character for having turned on her only blood-related sister:
In some ways, Diane had a much tougher time in life than I did. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, or pitied her. That night I told her about Rick and all, about what was happening. Having heard some of my previous stories, she wasn’t surprised. Then I made a mistake: I mentioned that Charlie was helping out.
The main character struggles with her attraction towards her “brother,” the life she is currently living, and the desire to not be dependent on others. The characters and dialogue are realistic and the conflict drives the story forward. Time isn’t wasted on lengthy descriptions; rather, Leslie’s characters tell the simple truth. The final sentence of the piece sums up the relationship the two siblings share: “Safe. Protected. My pulse throbbed, and it felt good.” No matter how difficult the times are, there is solace in one another.
Through trials and triumphs, Nathan Leslie’s fleshed out characters are compelling and realistic. Leslie explores the relationship that is often put on the back burner in American literature: brothers and sisters help each other find their own place in life. From haunting to compassionate, Sibs gives the reader a glimpse at the life of brothers and sisters in his or her own community and around the world.