Book Review: The Survivors by Alex Schulman

About the Book:

A suspenseful, haunting novel about three brothers and their reckoning with the events of one disputed, disastrous summer.

Benjamin sees the shape of his two brothers trying to kill each other. It’s no worthy finale, but perhaps it’s also no surprise. How else had they expected this to end?

Three brothers return to the family cottage by the lake where, more than two decades earlier, a catastrophe changed the course of their lives. Now, they are here to scatter their mother’s ashes.

Benjamin, the middle son, drives the three of them down the old gravel road to the house, through a familiar landscape but also through time. Here they are as boys, tanned legs and hungry eyes, children left to themselves by remote parents; here they are as young men, estranged but bound together by the history that defines them, their lives spent competing for their father’s favour and their mother’s love in a household more like a minefield than a home.

In the intervening years, Benjamin has grown increasingly untethered from reality, frozen in place as life carries on around him. And between the three brothers hums a dangerous current. What really happened that summer day when everything was blown to pieces?

The Survivors is the tale of a family falling apart and a chronicle of a mind unravelling in the wake of a tragedy, both a coming-of-age novel and a reckoning with a deeply buried past. Written with singular elegance and the drive of a suspense novel, its ending will leave you marvelling at what the best fiction can achieve.

Published by Hachette Australia – Fleet

Released 12th October 2021

My Thoughts:

The Survivors is a Swedish translated novel written by author and journalist Alex Schulman, who has written four bestselling autobiographical books, one of which was named Book of the Year in Sweden in 2017. The Survivors is a dual debut: his first novel and his first international release. It’s skilfully written and impactful in a subtle way that draws you in and keeps you hooked with its past and present back and forth narrative, swinging almost like a pendulum as you progress through the novel to the point where with one simple sentence, everything changes shape, altering your perspective and feelings on all that has come before that moment. It was a stunning reveal, that both shocked and yet made perfect sense in equal measure.

‘The weight of what’s taking place right now is enormous, but, of course, most of it has already happened. What’s playing out here on these stone steps, the tears of three brothers, their swollen faces and all the blood, is only the last ripple on the water, the one furthest out, the one with the most distance from the point of impact.’

The novel is narrated by Benjamin, the middle child. Everything we learn about this family is from his perspective. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Benjamin is not so much of the reliable narrator we are initially given the impression of. This is conveyed through looks he observes between his brothers and contradictions they make regarding Benjamin’s recall of childhood events. The clever writing allows the reader to intuit that the collective trauma these three brothers have experienced have marked each of them differently, so that even their shared childhood experiences are altered within each one’s memory. I have long been fascinated by the impact of trauma on childhood memories and the variations between the memories of siblings who have shared traumatic upbringings and this novel offered a particularly intimate study of it.

‘Sometimes, when you experience trauma, your mind will alter your memories. Benjamin had asked why, and the therapist replied, “So you can bear it.”’

Abuse within families is a complex thing, particularly if there is more than one abuser and more than one form of abuse taking place. The parents within this novel were both alcoholics who abused each other, as well as their children, physically, mentally, and through gross neglect. When this neglect became the direct cause of a tragedy, the parents did not use this as a basis for change, rather, as an excuse to become worse. And yet, as we see throughout the recollections of Benjamin, in spite of everything, it can be hard to untangle the messy complex feelings between parent and child; sometimes, walking away and switching off is not as easy as it might seem, even if it is the healthier option. For a novel with incredibly deep themes, it is written with a very readable touch, if that makes sense. Perhaps that is the author’s skill base as a journalist coming through. The novel is not weighted down with descriptions or meanderings. It instead skims along, conveying a lot through a little, almost minimalist with a classy edge. I really enjoyed the style.

‘And Benjamin looked at his father, and it was then, on his deathbed, that he recalled what had happened just that very morning when his dad had promised him a ski trip, and with the memory he suddenly realised why he had such a deep love for his father in spite of everything. The chance to be alone with Dad. It was those moments that had sustained him through the years, that had always made him stay on the right side of life.’

‘The brothers had received an upper-class upbringing that somehow occurred below the poverty line. Raised like nobility, taught always to hold their heads high, always to say grace before a meal and shake hands with Mom and Dad before leaving the table. But there had been no money, or: very little of the money had been invested in the children. And the academic upbringing had been undertaken half-heartedly; it began with great to-do but was never completed.’

As far as debuts go, The Survivors is an excellent one. I hope that future novels written by Alex Schulman are translated into English as I would certainly be keen to read more of his fiction. Highly recommended, particularly to those who have an interest in psychology and memory.

☕☕☕☕

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Survivors by Alex Schulman

  1. Always so interesting to discover that our memories of an event are not the same as those of others who were there,
    Even more interesting is to observe the reaction of others when it happens. The ones who cling obstinately to their version are insecure, I reckon, because they can’t bear to contemplate the possibility that they may have it wrong. Most of us know that human memory is selective and make allowances for it, and don’t get tense when someone else says, ‘that’s not how it was.’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I would enjoy this as I am interested in the psychology of memory. A detective friend once told me that eye-witness accounts in criminal matters are usually the least reliable as everyone sees through the filter of their own ideas and experiences and I have seen that played out in my own life. I will put ‘The Survivors’ on my dance card.

    Liked by 1 person

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