My Brother Ben

Peter Carnavas

I was blown away by Peter Carnavas’ first novel The Elephant and just as in his critically acclaimed debut, Peter’s signature style of gentle story-telling shines through, handling delicate family subjects with the greatest of care and sensitivity.

My Brother Ben is a story of sprawling summer days and the special bond siblings share. I feel so lucky to have my two brothers and the story evoked feelings of nostalgia, taking me back to my own childhood. Endless days of the three of us playing out together in the garden, building dens, riding bikes and hunting for creatures.

Set in Australia (Carnavas’ home) Luke and his big brother Ben spend long hot summer days on the banks of Cabbage Tree Creek. They while away the hours fishing and swimming without a care in the world, spending nights camped out in the back yard, dreaming about owning their own boat someday so they can explore further up stream.

The boys are like chalk and cheese, they couldn’t be more different but their brotherly bond binds them together. Self-assured and popular, Ben doesn’t have to try too hard at anything in life, it would seem he’s good at everything. Things come less easily to quiet Luke who prefers the safety of the shallows and his sketch book whilst his dare-devil brother leaps into the water from The Jumping Tree. He secretly feels inadequate next to his big brother but Ben has a way of lifting him up and making him feel like everything’s going to be ok.

When a local competition to win a canoe is announced, the boys spring into action. Entrants must be under fifteen and make something that celebrates the creek – a painting, photographs, anything that shows it off. Birdwatcher Luke has a talent for sketching and the boys team-up to make a book entitled ‘The Birds of Cabbage Tree Creek.”

But could their unbreakable bond be about to snap? This is the last summer the boys will spend truly together; a last summer spent as little boys before Ben goes off to high school and there are already signs that they are growing apart. Dad upped and left unexpectedly and whilst Ben has continued to talk to him on the phone, Luke feels unable to have a relationship with him.

Aunty Gem is Luke’s confidant. She has opened his eyes to birds and when birdwatching, Luke is able to just ‘be.’ ‘Even on the dark days, birds still sing.’The birds fill the spaces in his mind, keeping stress, worries and thoughts of dad from creeping in.

Soon those sacred summer days are over and for the first time, the boys go their separate ways to school. It’s not long before their closeness starts to feel like a distant memory and when Ben makes a new friend – a girl – Luke feels like he’s losing his brother.

Feeling pushed out, Luke is lonely and despondent. Life has lost its sparkle without Ben in it and Luke mopes around the house not knowing what to do with himself. Ben will do anything to impress his new friend, even if it’s at Luke’s expense and it seems all loyalty to his brother has been forgotten. He’s lost all patience over the situation with dad too and in a heated moment spits ‘Why don’t you just grow up!’ Will things ever be the same again?

Through Ben and Luke, Carnavas has laid bare the strains sibling relationships can encounter and the changes they go through during different life stages. As an eldest sibling, the story made me appreciate the feelings of envy and frustration, of being left behind that younger bothers and sisters may feel.

Once again, Carnavas harnesses the therapeutic power of animals and nature to heal his characters and help young readers navigate challenging issues. It was a real treat discovering the Australian birds that live around the creek and surrounding suburbs. I’m a big softie when it comes to animal rescues and a certain Magpie melted my heart.

This is such a nostalgic story, brimming with the innocence of childhood and the pain of growing up.

My Brother Ben publishes on 7th April.

With thanks to Pushkin Children’s Books for sending me a review copy.

Also by Peter Carnavas…

If you’ve not yet read The Elephant, I highly recommend that you do! Never before have I read a children’s book that explores caregiver depression so insightfully through the eyes of a child. The Elephant personifies depression, gives it a living animal form and makes what can be a very abstract concept for children accessible.

“A big grey Elephant is following Olive’s father around. It leaves with him for work and trails behind him when he comes home, keeping him heavy & sad. Every day, Olive wishes it would go.

When she is asked to bring something old & wonderful to show her class, Olive immediately wants to bring her old bike, but she will need her dad’s help to fix it. Teaming up with her cheery Grandad & best friend Arthur, she sets out to chase the elephant away. “

Most people will readily admit that their mental health has suffered at times during the pandemic. Although his depression was triggered by the death of his wife, I could really identify with Olive’s father’s loss of motivation to do anything. The temptation to find excuses…to say to the kids ‘we’ll do it tomorrow’

We try to keep it together for our kids but the story really made me think about the signals they pick up on and how their lives are touched by caregiver mental health issues.

This little book has such a big heart. It’s so full of hope and shows children recovery is possible. It also highlights how wonderful Grandparents and pets are. And I didn’t see the ending coming at all – so very, very clever..

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