Profoundly tender coming-of-age novel about love found between brothers
In Jaap Robben’s debut novel Birk, a boy is manipulated into taking his dead father’s place. Now, in Summer Coat, Brian, the 13-year-old protagonist, also feels the crushing weight of an adult responsibility too much to bear as he is expected to care for his physically and mentally disabled brother Lucien for a whole summer.
Brian lives on a forgotten patch of no man’s land with his divorced father Maurice and two dogs, in a caravan they rent from a couple of shady characters. Brother Lucien, now 16, has been institutionalised for years but his care home is in dire need of renovation. The boys’ mother has recently remarried and is on honeymoon, so the home asks Lucien’s father to take him for the summer while the work is carried out. Maurice agrees when he finds out there’s a generous weekly allowance to be had, but soon leaves Lucien to the tender mercies of his little brother.
To begin with Brian neglects his task. Leaving one of the dogs to look after Lucien, he tears off on his souped-up moped to impress Selma, an older girl who is also a patient at the care home. As a result Lucien spends hours lying in soiled nappies and ends up with severe sunburn. One of the dogs gobbles down Lucien’s pills and dies the same night. Maurice, who always has a deal on the go, is hardly ever around. Brian’s only real support comes in the shape of Emile, a mysterious figure who has moved into one of the caravans on the site.
Flashbacks reveal the family’s struggle to cope with Lucien: father exploits the situation for his own gain, mother abandons hope and Brian often resents the attention focused on his disabled brother. Yet as the adult world around the brothers turns grimmer, Brian moves closer to Lucien. He teaches him to walk and starts to notice what makes him smile, simple things like chucking bottles into the bottle bank. Slowly Brian discovers an urge to look out for his brother. When tensions at the caravan site come to a head, he makes a moving final pledge to Lucien: ‘When I’m old enough, you can come and live with me. Promise. And you won’t have to take those drugs anymore.’
Summer Coat is an honest, tender account of brotherly love in troubled circumstances. Like its predecessor Birk, the novel is sure to find an enthusiastic young adult audience. But its subtle yet unflinching examination of how people try and sometimes fail to cope with disability make this a coming-of-age novel that will resonate deeply with every reader.