Writers and readers have been compelled by stories of sibling rivalry since time immemorial. One of the Bible’s most famous stories, that of Cain and Abel, tells of one so fierce it ended in murder. The pull of a story of two people with simultaneous feelings of ever-enduring love and unbearable hate for one another, it seems, will always be impossible to resist for a plethora of readers and writers.
Annabel Smith is no different. Her novel Whiskey and Charlie, originally published in 2012 by Fremantle Press in Australia, has been picked up by Naperville-based Sourcebooks. The story revolves around the relationship and rivalry between two identical twin brothers: Whiskey, the one who can’t help but to find success at every turn, and Charlie, the one who has been jealous of his happier, more outgoing, more successful brother since before he reached his teen years. When Whiskey is hit by a car and plunged into a coma from which it seems he will never wake, Charlie looks back on his life and the relationship between himself and his brother, which at the time of the accident, seemed damaged beyond repair.
It’s hard to deny that Whiskey and Charlie is strongly informed by the Cain and Abel trope, right down to the basis personalities of the two titular brothers. One could be forgiven for wondering whether it’s worth reading the novel at all, given the fact it’s likely the only subject explored more commonly is “forbidden love.” However, those who cast aside the novel prematurely miss an opportunity as Smith’s story quickly becomes engrossing. The characters in the novel are almost Salinger-esque in their depth; one could easily be fooled into thinking Smith is writing about her own family. Charlie in particular, is explored honestly and in intricate detail. He is frustrating, complicated, secretive bordering upon being dishonest, unforgiving, and at times, petty. He is his own worst enemy, tortured by his own indecision and passivity as every aspect of his life comes crumbling down around him after Whiskey’s accident. While he may not be completely likeable or relatable, he is understandable. Charlie is a complicated, realistic, truly human character, whose actions and outlook are informed by past experience; he is a character who seems not to have been created but simply transferred from real life to the page. So much so, one wonders why Smith chose to write the novel in third person, rather than first; the depth of Charlie’s character definitely warrants it, and one feels the importance of Charlie’s natural unreliability would have more impact if the reader were inside his head.
While not to the same extent, the other characters the novel touches receive the same treatment. Smith doesn’t merely assign characters names and traits for plot’s sake. For the most part, Smith draws the novel’s story, humor, and sorrow from them, rather than from the situation they’re in. The novel is so engrossing not because one feels the need to find out what happens in the plot, but to find out where the characters’ lives will take them next, and that’s an important difference.
Moreover, Smith is an expert in saying a lot while writing little. The most emotionally charged moments of the novel—some of the most important, integral moments—are illustrated simply: two grown men holding each other by a hospital bed, a young boy bowing to and walking away from his first love. The simplicity of the prose and the scenes it describe allow the reader to feel the full emotional weight of the moments without gravity being forced upon them. The same is true for the novel’s funnier moments; Smith knows exactly how much to write, when to zoom in, and when to pull back and sit by as the scene unfolds.
However, while Smith’s prose and characterization carry the novel, they don’t completely mask its flaws. Despite the fact that the novel is centered around the idea of the bond between the twin brothers, the reader is only told—not shown—that Charlie and Whiskey were inseparable as children. Aside from learning about their playing together with walkie-talkies, there is no frame of reference as to just how close they were until the novel is almost in its third act. While this adds to the weight of Charlie’s emotional struggle and character arc, it also siphons away any emotional weight from the demise of the brothers’ relationship. And although the idea of writing the novel as a series of vignettes (each based on a letter of the NATO alphabet) is somewhat inspired, in the end this gimmick does little to convey the sense of depth to Charlie’s and Whiskey’s relationship that the novel so needs.
But perhaps the most difficult flaw to reconcile is that certain aspects of the novel’s plot come perilously close to slipping into the realm of melodrama. The self-referencing nature of the allusions to the soap-opera nature of some of the novel’s events don’t do enough to save it, and as the story begins to draw to a close, the bed-ridden brother in a coma, the constant affairs (both physical and emotional), long-lost family members, and overwrought sentimentality become a little overwhelming. The themes of forgiveness, importance of family, loving people for who they are—messages one hardly needs to search exhaustively to find in today’s media landscape—are treated with a heavy, overly sentimental hand, eventually becoming almost enough to induce eye-rolls. The ending itself almost lets down the entire novel, and it seems as though Smith fell too in love with her characters to hurt them by giving the novel the ending it deserved: one that is not only realistic but also emotionally and philosophically challenging. Instead, Whiskey and Charlie slips almost entirely into soap opera territory in its closing chapters.
However much Whiskey and Charlie is let down by its flaws, it is equally rescued by its strengths. It is a wonderful, introspective character study, constructed with care, attention, and love. Whiskey and Charlie defines itself by the strength of its characters, and that’s what makes it so riveting.
April 2015, Sourcebooks
$14.99, paperback, 336 pages
—Reviewed by William Wright