Toronto Star Reviews One Brother Shy

Note: Several plot spoilers in this review 

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Twins reunite in quest to find father in One Brother Shy

In One Brother Shy by Terry Fallis, the search for family is also a tale of self-discovery.

Aficionados of novelist Terry Fallis’s fiction could be forgiven for thinking his new novel, One Brother Shy, might be the kind of comic turn that has earned him two Stephen Leacock Medals for Humour. But they’d be wrong. Although one central character’s somewhat chippy personality has its amusing moments, the book is more psychological whodunit than side-splitting farce. The book is also something of an ode to one of the most unique emotional bonds a human can experience — the ineffable connection shared by identical twins.

But at the narrative’s outset, the shy, diffident and, yes, chippy Ottawa-based Alex MacAskill has no idea he was separated at birth from his much more sophisticated London-based twin brother Matt Paterson. Resolving the mystery of their separation and discovering the father they never knew keeps the novel humping along at a breakneck pace.

The action begins with the death of Alex’s mother and two pictures she leaves behind as a mysterious legacy. One of them shows a man, seen only from the shoulders down, cradling two newborns in his arms. The pictures contain a clue that would be critical to tracking him down: an odd tattoo on the left arm. But Alex initially has more pressing business: finding his twin who’s out there — somewhere.

Alex possesses a useful skill to aid and abet his sleuthing. A brilliant code writer, he’s developing state-of-the-art facial-recognition software, so faster than a speeding hard drive, Alex quickly discovers his bro is a successful tech entrepreneur in London and seemingly his polar opposite, emotionally, psychologically and experientially. Or is he?

A compelling subplot in One Brother Shy is the impact of a humiliating trauma Alex experienced as a 15-year-old aspiring high-school actor. After spiking his Coke with a Viagra-like pill, two bullies lower a dazed, naked — and tumescent — Alex onto the stage of his high-school Christmas pageant and the ensuing video — “ARCHangel” — became the Internet’s first viral sensation. Humiliated, Alex retreats from life, going emotionally AWOL for the next decade, until he meets his twin.

Once reunited, the twins go in search of their father, an odyssey that takes them to Putin’s Moscow with its vestiges of Soviet-era spooks and memories of the 1972 U.S.S.R.-Canada hockey series. Eventually, they succeed in finding their dad, but that is not the book’s emotional crescendo, IMO. That transpires when shy, taciturn Alex, the one-time aspiring actor, rediscovers himself by “playing” his brother, sidelined by laryngitis just before a make-or-break corporate dog-and-pony show. But had his twin tricked him into undergoing an emotional catharsis? Alex, confrontationally: “You never lost your voice, did you?” Matt, cryptically: “I lost mine, you found yours.” Now that’s identical twin love.

One Brother Shy is a charming, affecting book with perhaps one little caveat: Fallis’s tendency to tie up all plot lines with the precision of a daytime soap. A small quibble, perhaps.

Robert Collison is a Toronto writer and editor.

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