Branwell: A Novel of the Bronte Brother
Branwell Bronte is worthy of keeping company with other great tragic figures, those literary characters who, by greed, vanity, or hubris, are cast into a purgatory of the mind. The only Bronte boy, unaware of what his sisters will achieve, his birthright is to suffer pressure, both from within and without, to immortalize the family name. This drive is what cultivates Branwell’s fatal flaw: ambition. Unable to satisfy nebulous expectations of greatness, he merely collects the disappointments of mediocrity in a frenetic spiral of hope, fear, and intoxication, until he stumbles drunk into an early grave.
Branwell is a lyrical study of human nature and the destructive power of potential. With Hemingway-sized spatters of histrionic prose, author Douglas Martin vividly paints the mad landscape of childhood imagination. And when Branwell cannot achieve the adulthood of his dreams, the style marks simple madness.
Martin’s writing teeters on the edge of total irritation, dipping sometimes a bit too far into the stuff of bad college fiction. But once accustomed to its taste, the writing is an opiate, drawing tightening circles around a sad, drug-addled outcast. Pages of Branwell’s rambling monomania are utterly devouring, threatening to veer into a rare place—complete occupancy of a character’s mind. But the unending freight train of prose keeps you unavoidably aware that you’re reading a set piece.
Martin also delivers occasional magnificence: “The heart ages in imperceptible ways, the splintering of degrees. That protective chrysalis, how it split.” Inspired passages like this remind why the best fiction moments often read more like verse. But poetic fiction is typically used to wrest the extraordinary from a story told in familiar tones. Martin refuses to offer dialogue, description, and simple human interaction, instead crafting a sustained experiment in book-length poetry. Without this backbone the novel feels jejune; it threatens to cave in after 200 pages of a madman’s poetic rambling. It is a language feast that leaves you a bit overfull, cloyed on a diet too rich.
But you have to praise the guy for sticking to his guns; it takes guts to write an entire novel voiced by a fumbling, immature prima donna. Ultimately its success is derailed less by the linguistic experiment than by the predictability of the story. It’s never hard to imagine how the story of a mad, homosexual Romantic ends in the Victorian age of morals and manners.
Martin is young, his career promising—if he’s got the chops to continue turning out uncompromisingly experimental novels. True, Branwell might have benefited from some streamlining and a subtler symbolic touch. But the real news here is the emergence of a literary voice to watch. The novel’s unwavering madness creates a tangible pain that transcends historical era and brings Branwell’s misfortune into uncomfortable proximity with our own time. Generations ago it was simply the burden of being a boy, “a medal his parents must forever try to polish.” Now it is living in the globalized world that, for many of us, has unleashed the burden of limitless potential—something with which Martin himself may identify all too well.