Wednesday 27 March 2024

Book Review: Brian, Jeremy Cooper

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Brian tracks the life of a solitary man named Brian through his late thirties to retirement. He lives in Kentish Town and works for Camden Council, eats at the same Italian restaurant every day, and is thrown when his normal launderette is closed when usually it would be open. He lives a life of routine and repetition, feeling safe in the knowledge that he knows what’s coming. There is a sense that he longs for belonging, and he suspects he may find it if he joins the BFI and becomes a regular, something that needs some consideration before committing. Once he’s taken the step to join he soon goes every night, aware of a group of regulars who get together in the foyer to discuss the film after the showing. With time he becomes one of them and although he feels very anxious at the thought of saying the wrong thing he gradually feels confident enough to express his opinions, and becomes something of an expert in Japanese cinema.

The book is equally, if not majority, short critiques of the films he watches. In the early days of his membership it feels at times like simply a long list of films without much story development which can be a little tiresome, especially for readers not familiar with the films, but as the book progresses we see more and more of Brian and the sections describing his responses to the films he watches tells us almost as much about him as the film. In the beginning he watches films with a fairly closed mind, too conscious of protecting himself from any kind of emotional hurt that might arise from the themes presented to him, but with time he becomes more open. He remains guarded of his own heart, developing techniques whereby he can be moved by a film but without relating it to his own life however closely it might align. He’s aware that he has missed out on many things in life, and has never engaged much in politics or religion. Film gives him the opportunity to explore new avenues and experience things he doubts he ever will in real life. He goes through a phase of watching sexual content, at first deeply uncomfortable but fascinated, never having had a romantic relationship and not expecting to. We see in his developing passion for cinema the way in which it opens his mind to new possibilities, and offers him the opportunity of companionship with others whose interest in each other goes little deeper than what they thought of the film they’ve just watched. 

From the first pages of the novel we get a real sense of Brian and his personality. Nothing particularly dramatic happens throughout the course of the book, and he does not suddenly become a spontaneous extrovert, but we witness the slow growth of someone who has spent many years alone, subtle changes that indicate he is willing to cautiously let people in a little more, to consider the world beyond his flat and office. The passage of time is not clearly noted, with no chapter breaks it is a continuous piece of prose in which you are only aware that time has moved on significantly by mention of global events or his imminent retirement. It can be somewhat disorienting to realise that decades have passed since you last noted the time frame of the book, which is reflective of life, time slipping by largely unannounced. His retirement is a big moment for him, a possible point of crisis as his routine will be irretrievably changed. Similarly, medical changes that come with age prove a challenge, but he finds ways to adapt, and retirement proves an opportunity to indulge his interests further.

He had made attempts to find somewhere to fit in before braving the BFI, and sadly they always fell apart. The consistency of the screenings and the regulars, even if they change over time, is reassuring and allow him to find a sense of belonging. One regular, Jack, reaches out across the distant familiarity of the foyer discussions, suggesting they meet outside of the BFI. With time, they become friendly and Jack opens Brian’s eyes (or ears) to the depths of film scores. Brian is aware that many of the regulars would be considered outsiders by many, with their unkempt appearances and over-used plastic bags, and he finds Jack’s proclivity to talk to strangers embarrassing. Indeed, you can imagine that Brian is the kind of person people would find a bit odd, but this book reminds us that everybody is just doing their best, everyone has their own history which has shaped them, and that there are precious communities where social norms can be thrust aside and people can bond over a shared love of art.

There are many allusions to traumatic and difficult events from Brian’s past, in particular his childhood. We are drip fed information about his family life, his mother who finally took them away from his father, a brother who he hasn’t seen in 40 years, who lived in Northern Ireland, and yet who Brian is so determined not to see he frequently mistakes strangers in London for him and crosses the road to keep away. We understand that some of his behaviours stem from difficult early experiences, but it is not dwelt upon. For Brian it is merely part of his life’s story. 

An unusual, gentle book. Brian is a fascinating character to spend time with from his quiet, unassuming life, to his repeatedly confusing an accident he was in with having been a victim of one of the London bombings. From early on you want for him to find a sense of belonging. This is a book that can be enjoyed by non-film buffs, but I imagine it might add an extra layer of depth if you’re familiar with the films he discusses. It is an interesting reading experience to be eager to learn more about the protagonist, but instead to have pages of film critique. Overall a heartening read which makes you appreciate the things in life that bring us all joy, whether that be film or books, good food or games, it is to be treasured.  

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